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Prepare for Backlash

By Marsha Casselman

Is it worth the risk? A dramatic face-lift to a magazine could bring more hostility than praise from longtime readers.

Toronto’s Eye Weekly, a popular young leftist alternative news magazine, is accustomed to receiving nasty letters criticizing its editorials, reviews, and features. But reaction was exceptionally harsh following the grand unveiling of the new design last October.

The point of the redesign was not only to show-off innovative design techniques, but also to make room for food and entertainment. Changing both the content and the design at the same time brought on extra backlash from readers.

Eye  published the rants in its letters section the weeks following the change. “It sucks,” wrote one reader, “The layout is bland and unreadable. It is the most lame design I have ever seen.” Another wrote, “Though the self-flattering editorial touts ‘visual surprises,’ the most significant one is that the articles and ads have now become visually indistinguishable.”

Some fans threatened to stop reading. “I wish you luck with your new format, but you have lost me as a reader until you return to the old look or choose another one.”
So what went so wrong with the new design? Apparently nothing. Senior editor Stuart Berman says people are going to complain regardless of when or how a redesign occurs. “I think people are naturally resistant to change,” he says.

Berman was with Eye for the redesign in 2001, and says people hated the change then too. He knew the fuss would blow over. “People didn’t even remember that we redesigned in 2001, so I think a year or two from now they might not even remember this redesign, it just becomes part of their reading habits,” he said.

But the latest change may be slightly harder to forget. Not only were the graphics and layout changed, but also features and news items were lost in the shuffle, as were some popular columns, all to accommodate new food and fashion extras. “It wasn’t just the same content in a different wrapper… and definitely fans of certain columnists were pissed off that their favourite columnist wasn’t there,” said Berman.

One fan wrote “What about the loss of columnists who cared about issues beyond what you describe as ‘a whimsical take on local news and events’? You are effectively closing your readers’ eyes on the real world around us.”

Berman defends the change in content, as it was necessary for the sake of making design a priority. “Before we’d kind of just squeeze as much text as we could on a page and design was secondary. We wanted to equalize the balance,” he said. “We do still have long feature stories, people are complaining that we’ve done away with both, which I don’t think is the case.”

Berman admits not everything was a great decision, the first redesign issue was too busy, for example. “We’ve already removed certain features which we realized didn’t work when we finally started doing them week-to-week,” he said, having no qualms about admitting mistakes.

It seems a drastic change is bound to upset some readers, but taking risks is the only way to innovate and discover new elements that work. “You don’t know how these things are going to work until you actually do them,” said Berman. With the nasty letters behind them, and increased readership since the change, he must be glad they did.

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