Critiquing 10 Free Papers With Ed Henninger

You should see my physical mailbox at home. Lately it’s been full of packages from newspapers. Sometimes these packages contain a letter with one or two copies of papers. Other times, they contain several issues of a paper. Most often, the senders have one of two reasons for sending these to me:

1. To show me how much improvement they’ve made in their products after attending a training event, or

2. To ask me to look over their papers and make any quick suggestions to make them better.

I don’t always have time to look through the papers in detail, but I enjoy knowing that publishers respect my opinion. Lately, I’ve been hearing from a lot of free papers.

About a month ago, I received an email from a publisher on the East Coast who asked what I would charge to look over ten of his free papers and make suggestions to improve them.

At first I thought, “It sounds like an interesting project, but I just don’t have time.”

But lately, I’ve been trying to stretch myself and keep work interesting. It dawned on me that my friend Ed Henninger might be interested in working on this project with me. Sure enough, he was.

So yesterday, we met halfway between his home in Charlotte and my home in Knoxville. For seven hours we looked through ten papers in detail, taking copious notes, after which I wrote a 22 page report to send to the client. Since my column is a bit less than 22 pages, I’ll share just a few of the most common suggestions we made for these ten papers, as well as many of the other papers I’ve critiqued through the years:

- Use a different typeface in the body text. Don’t stick with old standards like Times and Palatino. There are more readable fonts and, frankly, Times and Palatino appear dated to the reader.

- Use bigger fonts in headlines. In many of the papers I’ve critiqued through the years, typefaces in headlines seem stuck between 24 and 32 points. It doesn’t cost any more to use a bigger headline and it draws the attention of the reader to more important stories. And never use Helvetica for headlines.

- Use dominant photos. Don’t show me a major story with six small photos when one dominant photo, plus one or two smaller pictures, would be much more interesting.

- Do a better job of editing photos. Reproduction quality in most papers suffers, not from the press, but from pre-press preparation. Toning and adjusting photos correctly, using the appropriate dot gain and ink levels for the press, makes all the difference. And whites that are “blown out” in photos is a definite “no no.”

Frankly, I thoroughly enjoyed my day critiquing these ten papers with Ed. We’ve decided we’re going to do a lot more of these projects together. I suspect many of the suggestions will be similar from paper to paper, but we find enough peculiarities in each publication to keep the work interesting.

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