Making weekly newspapers matter in a metro market

Back in January, I did an email interview with California Newspaper Publishers Association that mostly talked about the how and why behind the reboots of the Orange County Register’s weekly/community newspapers.

It’s a super-long interview, so I won’t bother to post the whole thing. But from time-to-time, I will try to publish parts of it.

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How did you make sure to include local flavor in the look? And how much has gone into making one distinctive from the others?

Many of these papers have been tabloids with shared designs and similar flags for more than a decade. One of the things we did was spend a lot of time on the flags. A newspaper’s flag should represent its city and its people. It should feel like it’s the hometown newspaper. Yes, that sometimes can just be a font, but not for a newspaper that has undergone several flag changes over its lifetime.

For the Anaheim Bulletin, we used a font very similar to what the paper used in its flag from the 1920s through the 1940s.

We then added imagery that was clearly iconic to the community.

For the Fullerton paper, we returned to the same font the paper used in the early 1900s. The problem was when that flag was used, the paper’s name was simply the Fullerton Tribune. That meant we had to create our own version of the word News.

Here’s a story about it:

 We gave this much care to every paper’s flag – worrying about fonts, images, and even having custom illustrations created.

 We were just as careful with what’s inside these papers. The 24 papers are basically split between five community editors and teams. There are certainly things that are shared by all the papers – like much more coverage of schools, churches and businesses – but each group also did things very specific to each newspaper.

The only thing cookie-cutter about these papers is that we used really, really good dough in each one of them. 


20 remakes: It sounds like a redesign monster. Briefly describe the workflow just for the remake: How did the local editors feed that info back into the look?

 We started with one prototype that had elements we thought would be fairly consistent in all of the papers – things like fonts and page folios, shorter stories, multiple points of entry, lots of engaging elements and information snippets – and lots of photos of people. But our biggest goal was to introduce a sense of fun, big designs, with lots of different narrative elements, and a way for our reporters and editors to steer clear of long text that basically scream to readers that they shouldn’t read this story.

In many ways we were combining old-school community stories with new-world design sensibilities. What if your local newspaper looked like it was designed in this decade and read like it was put together so that people couldn’t put it down once they picked it up?

Without going into exactly how we did it, we knew what our readers wanted and we did everything in our power to give it to them. 


You said: “It’s fun when a newspaper winks at its readers — a real sense of serendipity is important if you want folks to feel like they can’t wait to open your pages each week.” Describe how the sections will include that “wink” each week. (I’ve looked at some of the remakes online; my question pertains to keeping that “insider” feel consistently. What’s the directive to editor and reporter on that?)

 It’s probably easier to send you examples of how we’re doing it. But let’s just say that we haven’t been afraid to poke fun at other cities within Orange County in certain newspapers. For a story on how to experience the five senses in Irvine, we had our cover illustration drawn to show Irvine as if it were an amusement park.

 When you read these papers, you get a sense that there are real people producing them, not just some news droids with an AP style guide.

What is it like to radically redesign and expand more than 20 weekly newspapers in just a few months? That’s a banner question

On my first day at the Orange County Register, I learned two ways of looking at our newspaper:

We see the Register as the nation’s largest community newspaper, and like a tree, it needed strong roots to grow at a time most newspapers are struggling to stay alive. Those are the goals that executive editor Ken Brusic and our new publisher, Aaron Kushner, wanted to achieve.

To do that, the Register needed to produce not only a great daily newspaper, but also some of the best weekly papers in the country. 

It was a cool assignment, because the Register’s weeklies had long been neglected by the people who previously occupied the executive offices on the fifth floor at 625 N. Grand Avenue in Santa Ana.

But these weeklies were about to be pushed into the centerpiece position at one of the largest newspapers in the nation – both in quality and as a significant part of the new owners’ advertising and circulation strategies to revitalize the news organization.


Over the next few months, I am going to go over many of the strategies we implemented at the Register’s weekly papers. But first, let’s talk about the flags we used for newspapers that serve vastly different communities in Orange County, each with their own distinct cultures.

When the assignment was given to revive the weeklies, the papers looked like this:


Every single weekly newspaper at the Register shared the same design and the same banner flag font. They were typically 16 pages. 

Anyone who’s followed my digital career knows that the news web sites I’ve been lucky enough to be a part of did all that they could to reflect the community. At the Las Vegas Sun, for example, we designed a banner that reflected the icons that distinguished that city. Same in Lawrence. Newspapers are even more a part of a community’s history than a web site. Some of our community papers were older than the Register itself. They needed to be unique and represent their distinct communities

We started asking questions. Did a newspaper have great flag in the past? Is there an iconic image or moment in that community? Was there something that unites a community?

For the Anaheim Bulletin, which used to be a daily newspaper, we used the same fonts that had been used in the 1920s. We went back further than that for the Fullerton paper. The San Clemente paper was going to get wonderfully retro, 1960s style.

For many of the papers, we commissioned artists just to design their flags or the imagery used in the banners.

And, here’s how they look today:




When it was decided that the weekly newspaper for Newport Beach and Costa Mesa would become a daily newspaper, we decided to create new artwork for each day of the week – with the different images representing each of the paper’s communities.


For the edition of the Current that ran before the reboot of the “Arrested Development” television series – and was loaded with stories about the show’s ties to Newport Beach and Orange County – we created a special one-off image for the flag. What made that even more amusing to us was that it was going to be an image that didn’t exist in the real Newport Beach, only in the one in the show: the Bluth family frozen banana stand.


So which of the Register’s community newspaper flags is my favorite?

Not sure I could pick one. But I sure like the ones that have historical significance. And our “newest” weekly definitely fits that bill.



This flag is basically a composite of the banners used by the Register between 1912 and 1951, with the fonts being from the later years and the eagle and slogan being from the earlier years.

To pull it off, we asked Cleveland Plain Dealer artist extraordinaire – and longtime friend – Chris Morris to help us build the new flag. He did an amazing job.

I also like the flags that are for newspapers that have really distinctive names. And few newspapers have as cool of a name as the Huntington Beach Wave has, and we tried to give it a flag as awesome as its name.


Helping with all of these flags were the Register’s fantastic senior designers Pam Marshak and Scott Albert. I look back and can’t believe how much work and creativity those two put into all of these.

I’m currently posting on tumblr

It’s been awhile since I have posted over here, huh?

At some point, this site will get re-designed. But in the name of being able to publish quicker and easier, I’ve been posting lots of stuff over on tumblr.

You can find those ramblings here:

I’m mostly posting about things that I’m lucky enough to be involved with at the Orange County Register.

Hope you’ll check it out!

I love it when a front page has this sort of story mix and visuals


* above-the-banner key (with clever graphic) to our lead story in the business section on rising home sales in Orange County

* nice update on California’s state budget with a story that brings clarity to the complicated chaos

* story from one of our Super Interns (Lindsey Ruta from the University of Oklahoma) that initially ran in our Dana Point weekly newspaper about a 16-year wait to plant in some city gardens across the county – she widened  the story for the version in this morning’s Register

* really great read on a local teacher who is retiring after being at the same elementary school for nearly 40 years.

I love it when a front page has this sort of mix of stories and visuals!

Orange County Register returns to its roots with launch of new “Santa Ana Register” weekly newspaper

This is the note to readers that appeared on the front page of this morning’s Orange County Register:


Before there was the Orange County Register, there was the Santa Ana Register, and today our newspaper returns to its roots. Santa Ana readers now have a weekly paper dedicated to telling stories of a city rich with culture and diversity.

Our new weekly has a distinctly historic feel as we return to the banner used before 1939. In 1952, the paper changed its name to simply The Register, and in 1985 became The Orange County Register.

In the early years, the Santa Ana Register’s mission was to be the “People’s Paper for all Orange County.” That also describes our goal for the Orange County Register – to keep improving the nation’s largest and best community newspaper.

Our new weekly will be delivered to subscribers in Santa Ana every Thursday. But all our readers will benefit from increased daily coverage of the county seat.


This first edition of the Santa Ana Register as a weekly newspaper was 36 pages. The first 18 pages were a news/sports section, and the second 18 pages were devoted to the history of Santa Ana and how the Register wove through that history.

Here are a few highlights of this morning’s paper:



“Voices” is our opinion/editorial page. But with the exception of the column from me, it is all contributed from the community. 





The second part of the paper was the historical section – a section filled with full-page ads … and only full-page ads. It was lovely to see all of these open news pages sitting right next to advertisers who truly believe in the re-birth of this newspaper.





The middle of this history section included this amazing double-truck timeline. This was designed by Jorge Medina.







I’ve written and said this next sentence so many times that it probably sounds like a cliche now, but it’s still as true to me as the day I first heard it. My mentor in journalism – photojournalist extraordinaire Bill Snead – emphasized to me how important it was to give our readers a gift each day … something that surprises them and makes them feel a real emotion.

This history section was that. But really the whole paper was. 

Santa Ana is such a great city with so many important stories to be told, and now we have a great local newspaper where we can tell them. And what a team to tell those stories!

The paper’s editor, Theresa Cisneros, has worked at the Register for 14 years, and is the fourth generation of her family to call Santa Ana home. Nearly every person on this staff has similar ties, from the reporters to the great visual journalists.

Along with Theresa, so many others really worked their tailfeathers off to make this first edition such a treat, people like designers Jorge Medina, Helayne Perry and Fernando Donado, community editor Michelle Nicolosi and senior reporters Ron Gonzales and Tim Burt, as well as our newest reporters Jordan England-Nelson and Alejandra Molina. Our group editor over the Santa Ana Register is Paul Danison.

It’s not very often that you get asked to launch a new newspaper. These people treated it like the amazing opportunity that it was.

This is the Orange County Register’s front page from this morning, June 4, 2013.

I love it when our stories fill three basic buckets: Serve, Save and Serendipity. This front page hits many of those beats with a great mix of images and stories.

It begins with a business story that was teased above the flag – a great read totally aimed at cutting through all the confusion of the cost of going to a theme park in Southern California. Disneyland. Knott’s Berry Farm. Legoland. Sea World. Six Flags. Universal Studios. Single-day ticket prices that range from $59 to $99, and season passes that range from $65 to $669. This story does a heckuva job of helping you understand all the options.

Then there’s a really well-done centerpiece from Roxana Kopetman on what community involvement really feels like on an issue as divisive as immigration reform. She knocked it out of the park with this story on so many levels. And I really like Rod Veal’s photo that went with the package.

After having looked at audience numbers a hundred different ways, I can promise you that our local take on the recently released FBI crime stats was well read across the county. Look, if you have a chance to write this story, do it. I can mathematically prove that people are interested in it. 🙂

I love it when a newspaper makes you feel something. I learned that at one of my first newspaper gigs.

When I was young reporter at The Topeka Capital-Journal, I wrote a story that I had hard time getting done because I was tearing up as I was trying to type. The next morning I asked our Managing Editor – the amazing Anita Miller, who was a huge influence on me – how the story was. She said everyone who read it absolutely cried in their Cheerios. I asked her if that was good thing and she said whenever you write something that makes someone feel real emotion and learn something at the same time, then you’ve done all that you can as a journalist. She said it’s the stories that make people feel connected that are the stories that they talk about all day at work and share with others.

Well, that’s the type of story that Jaimee Lynn Fletcher wrote for this morning’s newspaper. When you read her story about a disabled member of the Edison High track team, you’ll feel something. You’ll also be glad that you know his story and that he’s a member of our community. I know I feel those things.

And in the right rail of the page, there was a late-breaking story about ex-Ram Deacon Jones dying (the Rams used to actually play in Anaheim), as well as a great key to the full-page graphical story by the Register’s Scott Brown. You should see that page … it is amazing!

I don’t always know why I like certain things, but I’m not shy about saying when I do like something … and Register A1 editor Marcia Prouse and A1 designer Scott Albert made us proud today.

I really like this front page for a couple of reasons:

* the surfer story is very Orange County, and running huge photos above the fold – hell, above the flag – makes me happy.

* my vote is that a local weather story should be on the front page at least every 10 days or so. 🙂 And if you live in Kansas, I’d say more like every 5-7 days.

* very good follow story on a serious teen car accident that killed five local high schoolers earlier in the week.

* a fascinating and fun “morning read” story tied to the Newport Beach Jazz Festival from one of my favorite writers in the world, Ron Sylvester, who also is the best dressed, non-TV journalist in the nation.