Rethinking journalism: The man behind Inquirer’s new look

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Media consultant Mario Garcia, who led the redesign of the Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, applies his "unified philosophy of storytelling" to one of the country’s biggest newspapers, and explains why this is not a redesign, but a "rethink" of how we tell stories across platforms. Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The second floor of the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s head office in Pasong Tamo, Makati, is strewn with flaglets displaying the iconic Inquirer logo in a new font. The new logo, in Friz Quadrata, is thinner, and may be slightly unrecognizable from the one readers are used to in the newspaper’s decades-old history. But no matter: the atmosphere in the building is celebratory, its facade displaying a banner inviting passersby to “experience the most engaging Inquirer yet.” The flaglets inside almost look like they would festoon a fiesta.

We were about to meet Mario Garcia, CEO of Garcia Media, the global media consulting firm that conceptualized the newspaper’s new look. Connie Kalagayan, Inquirer's AVP for Corporate Affairs, greets us first. “We have just given birth,” she says, and they are experiencing birthing pains. Everyone was up until midnight the day before, says Imee Alcantara, VP for Strategy and project manager for the newspaper’s relaunch.

Garcia, who has visited the Philippines for the fifth time through the 18-month period of the newspaper’s re-gestation, understands how Kalagayan and Alcantara feel. If Kalagayan talks of birthing pains, Garcia refers to doing “a lot of hand holding,” handing out “a lot of teddy bears,” and reassuring everyone that “everything’s gonna be okay,” as would a midwife or ob-gyn comfort a pregnant woman about to give birth. In the Inquirer’s case, however, it has not only given birth to a new design for the printed newspaper; it was giving birth to a revamped quintet, “a media quintet,” as Garcia says, where all storytelling platforms — smartwatch, phone, tablet, desktop, and print — form one single, cohesive storytelling unit.

It’s a historic change, to say the least, for the newspaper that bannered “It’s all over: Marcos flees!” in 1986, and which has exposed major government irregularities for the last 30 years. But for Garcia, while the packaging of the Inquirer’s stories has been changed, the essence has not: “It’s all about the good story,” he tells CNN Philippines Life, as we ask him about the impetus for redesigning newspapers, his storytelling philosophy, and the role newspapers still play in the media landscape. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

“The newspapers here also carry political baggage," says Garcia. "The American newspapers, very few of them are as politically-minded as you would have here. But here, every newspaper stands for something." Photo by JL JAVIER

Can you describe that day when you first presented the redesign to Inquirer?

Before that, we had a workshop, and the idea was for me to tell them what I thought about the Inquirer. And so, you know, I compared it to all the newspapers in the Philippines and all the newspapers in the world, and I sensed that they were not doing what I call a unified philosophy for storytelling. In other words, they were still very much centered in the printed edition, as opposed to the digital, the print, the online edition. My philosophy is that you need to work with the media quintet. There are five platforms: the smartwatch, the online, tablet, the print, and the phone. From the very beginning my approach was that they have to really become a media company that told stories across platforms.

So while this is being heralded as a redesign [...], it’s [actually] a rethink of how a media house presents information to its audience. What was launched here yesterday was a product, [with which] editors are very aware that we consume information differently on the phone as opposed to online, as opposed to on print, and the tablet. That unified vision, not only visually, but also journalistically is what the public has seen with the new Inquirer … and I think that’s very new for the Philippines, where the printed newspapers still do one thing and the digital does something else, and there is not a sense that, if you are a reader of the Inquirer on the phone, online, watch, there has to be a unity. And I think that’s what we tried to accomplish for this project.

How did you anticipate the manner by which the “rethink” would affect those journalists who still held on to traditional views of what a newspaper should look like?

Yes, that’s not an easy thing to do. There is a sense of legacy to every business today. Whether you’re a banker, doctor, or a professor, things are changing very rapidly, but the people who are in charge, they are people of a certain age, they were educated in a certain way, and their world is shaking around them. I understand that very well because I am 69 years old myself. It’s not like I am 32, trying to convince people who are 55. But the idea is you have to be open minded.

...the craft of journalism — the whole idea of what good journalism is all about — has not changed. It’s all about the good story. If you have a good story, it doesn’t matter what platform you put in, people are going to be interested.

What I tell them is, the craft of journalism — the whole idea of what good journalism is all about — has not changed. It’s all about the good story. And you know that. If you have a good story, it doesn’t matter what platform you put in, people are going to be interested. But having said that, we consume the information in different platforms. The average person, for example, consults a phone maybe 114 times supposedly a day. Those 114 times, what you’re looking at is short information, snippets of information. And then, if you see a story that you like, you say, I’m gonna read this later, and where do you read it? You might read it in your tablet, you’ll take off your shoes and lie in the sofa, and you read this while you’re on the bus, during the day. You just basically get the snippets.

We have what I call two tempos. We have the “leaning forward” — all day we lean forward on the phone when we take a look. But there are certain times in a day, maybe lunch time, maybe night, when you lean back. So the two tempos are “leaning forward” and “leaning back.” And you have to have an understanding of what happens in these two tempos.

So journalists of a certain age — the legacy journalists — are always in tempo number two. Lean backwards. They think that most people are just going to relax, and read the long story. Well it doesn’t work that way. So you have to be producing the raw meat all day long, and cooking the big meal all day long as well. That is what’s difficult for journalists.

What makes it difficult for print journalists, [many of which] are producing tomorrow’s newspaper, they are not thinking that tomorrow’s newspaper is there, but you’re updating on your mobile devices constantly. That’s the difficult thing. So how do you manage to [address] that? A lot of workshops, a lot of hand holding, a lot of teddy bears, everything’s gonna be okay, but you have to understand that the way we used to do the news today is not the way we used to do news when I started my career. By the time you started there was Google, and you’re used to a 24-hour cycle of news. Whenever you want to get news, you turn to your phone. That’s it.

The whole issue of legacy is frequency. For a newspaper mind, it’s 6 a.m. every 24 hours. For television news people, it’s the morning show, or the 8 p.m. news at night. Yes, you still have these shows, you still have the newspaper. But what people come to get from there is different from what they used to 20 years ago. So that’s the answer to your question: how to make an editor understand that the notion of frequency has changed.

Garcia says that the role of the newspaper in the media quintet is that of amplification, analysis, interpretation: "The paper is no longer to be the one breaking the news," he says. "You have to get out there, knowing that who come here already know a lot of what has happened."

In the “rethink” of the Inquirer, what old elements from the old design were retained, and what were sacrificed?

You always have to give a hand to the past. The newspaper’s been here for 30 or so years, and you’re not going to come in and throw it out the door … I mean it’s like when you decorate a home, chances are you ask the owners of the house, oh maybe that was grandmother’s piano, so whatever you do, don’t throw away your piano. So you work with some elements.

For the newspaper, and I think for Filipino papers in general, you use the bolder headlines. You have a lot of competition. In many of my newspapers, I would not use bold headlines like this. You have bold headlines everywhere, because the Filipino reader likes the boldness, the bright colors. Orange, green. So we went to a lot of things from the past that we think are not only part of the DNA of the Inquirer, but also of Filipino newspapers.

For Filipino papers in general, you use the bolder headlines. You have bold headlines everywhere, because the Filipino reader likes the boldness, the bright colors.

You cannot bring the culture of another country, or how newspapers look in another country, whether Switzerland or Brazil, then bring it to the Philippines and introduce it. So the foundation of all of this is basically the DNA of the newspaper from the way it was. The colors, the typography. That has been taken into account, that’s for sure. Also, certain columnists, you want to keep them where they were. The horoscopes. The crossword puzzle. Things like that, which are very utility-minded, you keep them in the same place.

What is new is the navigation. It’s easier to navigate through this newspaper, number one. Number two, the hierarchy. There’s a tendency, for many of these Filipino newspapers, for stories not to show you their significance. In one page, you have a big headline at the top, big headline at the bottom, so which one is the more important one? So we have hierarchy. If you open the page of the newspaper, you will see that this story has a bigger headline, that story has a smaller headline. Bigger, smaller, secondary stories. So you have a sense that, sometimes, in the old Inquirer, you will have headlines [that are as big as each other]. So the reader doesn’t know which is more important.

In an era where some wonder whether newspapers are dead, Garcia remains optimistic, at least, for the Philippines. “For Filipino readers, they’re very attached to their newspapers still. So I don’t anticipate that [newspapers will be gone] anytime soon. But maybe in the middle of the century, probably," he says. Photo by JL JAVIER

The eyes don’t know where to go.

Yes. So we try to be more modular, not only with the ads, which are more square, but with the stories themselves. People who are reading in these platforms think in terms of squares. Modules. You use the shape of the letter “U,” as opposed to putting the text here and the photo down. So there is, structurally speaking, a cleaner environment, with a little bit more of wide space to make the eye rest a little bit more, you see. So that’s been one of the changes. This editorial page [points to the opinion pages], things were falling on top of each other, you see? This white space here is to separate the opinion of the house, from the opinion of the columnists. Obviously with that came the problem of making these columns shorter. That’s a big problem for the writer.

There are four levels [of stories here]: primary, secondary, compact, brief.

What was the biggest source of debate in the process of redesigning or rethinking the Inquirer?

One of the most intense debates would have been eliminating so much text from here [points to the front page]. They would have every story have their text on the cover. We went for a mobile-driven kind of page, where you’d have summaries of stories on the front, and you don’t read the complete story here. This still continues to be a major source of, oh why can’t we have all the stories in there? So the idea is you give them here [in the front page], a quick map of the journey, and then [turns the pages], you read the stories as you go. So that is what I call bringing the digital mentality to print. That was not easy to sell. You can imagine, even today, they would like to see the complete story here, as opposed to the story there. Larger photos, it’s a hard sell, because if you’re enlarging the photos, you are cutting the stories or something.

How do you think will people respond to the “rethink” for the next few months or years?

I’m very surprised that the responses have been so positive. Eighty-five percent to 90 percent of what we have gotten in the last few hours is people who liked it. Obviously there’s this 10 percent who says they didn’t like it. One of the biggest surprises is people calling in to get subscriptions. Normally, when we redesign, we get calls to, “cancel my subscription!” I don’t like it anymore! Here, there have been 14 people calling, oh, I would like to subscribe now to the Inquirer. People who had left it, who came back … so this has been an interesting experience so far. We don’t know what will happen tomorrow. Our advertisers like it too. We would see in one week.