Straits Times heritage correspondent Melody Zaccheus believes telling good heritage stories helps connect people and their relationships to places.
Melody’s foray into the heritage beat can be traced back to an article she wrote in 2012 on the National Heritage Board’s efforts to document Singapore’s eight remaining traditional bakeries known for producing conventionally prepared breads and buns. Learning first-hand about the struggles of these dying businesses, which once numbered up to 200 in the 1970s, inspired the then fresh journalism graduate to pursue more of such evocative stories.
Inspiring deeper conversations about Singapore’s heritage and giving a voice to forgotten historical figures and everyday people with stories to tell, are some of the reasons why The Straits Times has a reporter covering the heritage beat, says Melody. Since 2012, she has assumed this role in Singapore’s main English-language newspaper, carving out a niche in the newsdesk.
Beyond just the recounting of nostalgic events, much of Melody’s job is to figure out how to make a story relevant to readers today. Over the years, her coverage has ranged from reporting on new historical discoveries to overlooked heritage, and occasionally, even correcting misconceptions about the past.
Die-hard Singapore football fans will proclaim the late 1970s and early 1980s as the best times for the national team. With the likes of “Gelek King” Dollah Kassim, the tough-tackling Samad Allapitchay, the Quah brothers and a then rising star in Fandi Ahmad, the team made it to seven consecutive Malaysia Cup finals and won twice. Their exhilarating performance on the pitch was captured in countless write-ups in the local newspapers, including a editorial cartoon in The Straits Times known as Sham’s Saturday Smile.
This creation of graphic artist Shamsuddin Haji Akib offered avid football fans fans like himself a punchline on Singapore football, bringing smiles to fans looking forward to Malaysia Cup matches every weekend. After a commentary on how the national team’s performance was being disrupted by coach Trevor Hartley’s ever-changing line-ups, Shamsuddin depicted him as a mad scientist who would not stop experimenting. Responding to various reported incidents of unruly behaviour amongst fans and players, he turned in cartoons with referees wearing helmets and Hartley learning the Malay art of self-defence, bersilat, to control his players.
Just 10 days after The Straits Times unveiled their redesign at the end of May, TODAY announced they had spent the last nine months undergoing a redesign led by internationally-acclaimed newspaper designers DaniloBlack. I recently caught up with TODAY’s night editor Razali Abdullah to find out what went on behind-the-scenes.
What prompted this redesign? It’s been three years since the last redesign, and it seems like a long time. In the last three years, a lot of things have happened. The way people consume news has changed, more people now are reading news from their smartphones and mobile devices than three years ago. And three years ago, the iPad wasn’t born! For us, it wasn’t just about changing the look and feel, but also the content. We wanted to re-engage our readers and attract new ones. The redesign is more than just an overhaul of the look, we wanted to relook the way we produce content. We needed new tools to showcase new content.
What are some of the main changes in this redesign? First we have the floating column — the white space between stories that also serves as a place where we can put value adds to stories. This design element is a tool for us to include nuggets of information. This device forces our sub-editors to think of what to fill it with.
We also have new sections such as “Youth”, “Education”, “Silver” and even “China & India”. Having these sections ensure that we constantly have content dedicated to these segments.
We have different colour schemes for different sections. And the new suite of colours that the designers have come up with is very refreshing.
A lot of readers also said they couldn’t find our sports pages, so we added a green background to differentiate the section. Plus headlines in sports are now in uppercase, which adds to the drama and the emotion that sports stories bring.
The body text has also been increased by a point because we have received feedback that it was too small in the old design.
Of course, the biggest change is in the masthead, for both the main paper as well as the “T” section.
We used to divide the paper into eight columns, it is now nine to give us the floating column. As our ad sizes have stayed the same, this means there is also more white space between ads and editorials, which reduces clutter and helps readers navigate through the paper better.
Does this mean TODAY will no longer do innovative ads that intrude into editorial? We will still do creative advertising, where advertisers who want association with certain types of content can buy into the environment.
What were some issues with the previous design? We wanted the new design to take the paper forward. We wanted devices that can serve as a window to cyberspace, so we now have boxed elements about what’s trending and what’s hot in cyberspace. Knowing that space for stories will be less, we needed new tools to flesh out various points in the story. So the reader has various entry points, as not every information is contained in the story. The old design didn’t have such tools.
One thing about the floating column is it gives readers a lot of breathing room, something the old design didn’t have. In the past, we tried to cramp too much into the space we had, often at the expense of pictures and infographics. There was a reluctance to cut text and you could see it in the old paper. Design wasn’t really a key thing then.
With the addition of the floating column and more white space, did you have to sacrifice the number of stories as well as their length?
Yes, the stories have become shorter but readers get more bite-sized information in the sidebars and info boxes. We have fewer stories but the trade-off is the quality of the stories has gone up as only the best ones will make it. The story selection is tighter now.Also, there is more real estate for photos. A common gripe from our photographers in the past was they would shoot an event, but we’ll crop their picture into a face cut. That doesn’t happen anymore.
Did you consider becoming a bigger paper to fit the design and the content? I think the advertisement ratio is very important because it keeps us profitable. It’s what has kept us afloat. We broke even in four years, which is very rare if you look at newspapers around the world. If we open up more pages or become bigger, it means the paper’s ad ratio will drop.
What were some of the main guiding principles in this redesign? We wanted it to be more reader-friendly. It’s got to be easy on the eyes. I wasn’t involved in the initial discussions. My involvement began when DaniloBlack came back to us with two sets of designs. That was when the editors picked the elements they liked from each design and we reached some sort of compromise. One of the designs was more contemporary, while the other was more cutting edge. The final design is a nice blend between the two.
Why work with DaniloBlack? How was the experience? We wanted to freshen the paper up, we needed a design that will tie all our products together — newspaper, mobile app and website — and DaniloBlack is perfect for this. They don’t just do print design. They design apps for tablets and all kinds of digital applications for some of the world’s biggest papers.
It was overall a great experience. They were very accommodating and understood our needs and were able to come up with solutions to our problems. We worked via Basecamp, they would send us PDFs of what they had done and we would revert with our comments every week or so. The final month before the launch, it became more intensive because we started to test the designs with real content, and real ads. It took about nine months in total.
Besides design, what else has changed about the paper? The approach for the stories has changed. Because of how fresh the paper looks now, we can’t rely on the old way of doing things. A big challenge for us is competition from online sources, people are now getting their stories from everywhere. What are we doing so different that readers will come back to us? It’s the thinking behind the news selection, and how to take stories forward.
Was your redesign also reacting against your competitor, The Straits Times? It’s not just about The Straits Times, but also about how news consumption has changed. You can get news from anywhere, what we try to do is to find our unique selling point. The old thinking was that we could not miss any stories that were published elsewhere. Now it’s not so much about missing stories, but do we have a better story?
In the last redesign, the masthead/nameplate set in Times New Roman was one element that could not be changed. Why the change of heart? We wanted a total overhaul, so we basically told them there were no sacred cows. We wanted something fresh that could tie the whole paper together. So you see the stripes in the background of the masthead, those appear in our “Business” pages too.
Do you think the new sections are unnecessary? Some of them are just one- or two-pages. We feel that some segments deserve a section of their own. The youth, for example, many of them are doing good things, coming up with good initiatives, that don’t get highlighted enough because they’re competing with hard news stories. The “China & India” section is also crucial because people are looking at these two emerging economies very closely — whatever happens there tend to have an impact on the rest of the world. In terms of advertising, it is crucial for us. Some advertisers want to be associated with certain sections, so we try to give advertisers a wide spread.
What is one element about the redesign you like to highlight? For me, it’s the way information is being presented now. You don’t have to read the entire story to be able to pick out the key facts and figures: Those you would find in the sidebars, or presented as bullet points, or in the info boxes in the floating columns. We are doing a lot more value adds: Adding video links, web links to stories, providing background information to stories. It’s a refreshing change from the past where we tried to cramp everything into the main copy. For someone who comes from a design background, these are exciting times. I hope the readers like it.