The new Sunday Star-Times and all that entails

The Sunday Star-Times redesign may not be as dreadful as some people were expecting, but neither does it fill one with hope for the future of New Zealand’s print media. I speak as a trained graphic designer, a cartoonist, an accidental writer, and someone who is getting slightly sick of newspapers and local institutional mediocrity in general.

The layout is clear and pleasant, and considering the deadlines their graphic designers face, the articles are well arranged. There’s a tendency to fill the top half of the pages with oversized photos, and the headers and headlines are also unusually large, but this may be in consideration of the failing eyesight of the average newspaper reader.

Some of the headers, sidebars and information boxes have an unpleasant lizard-coloured background, which is almost exactly the same greenish-beige as Futurama’s Kif Kroker. To make the surviving columnists seem more like human beings instead of mere, uh, respected names, their columns are accompanied by full-length portraits. The women columnists are in sassy poses to show they are modern. Rowr! Grant Smithies wears a white T-shirt, like the rebel he is. The business guy has a suit and tie, but his jacket is casually draped across his shoulder, because he has attitude, see? There’s no way the Man will tell him to put on his jacket and tuck in his shirt properly and do something about that moustache.

This is unfair to Rob Oram, despite his moustache, because his column this week (about NZ cultural characteristics which are hampering our economy) is the most interesting piece of writing in the entire paper.

What is this trend of showing us what our opinion journalists look like? It’s a cliché. It’s rarely flattering, except in the case of rival publication Your Weekend’s restaurant reviewer David Burton, who wears a dark suit and stands like Captain Awesome. Frankly, it makes everyone else look like a bit of a tit, especially when you put all the photos side by side. Either they aren’t to the same scale, or Amanda Midgley is seven feet tall and Richard Boock habitually levitates a foot above the ground. Maybe that’s true? I’ve never met them.

The smug aspirational tone of the Sunday Magazine liftout is largely unchanged, except now they use a dreadful serif font for the headers which puts me in mind of packing-crate stencils. The section editor assures us that “we try not to change too often – we wouldn’t want you to feel flustered on a Sunday.” This, I feel, speaks volumes. After reading the interview with Phil Manzanera from Roxy Music I got ‘Avalon‘ stuck in my head and it wouldn’t budge, because that’s exactly the sleek, superficial aesthetic this newspaper emits. It’s good-looking, but the content is thinner than skim milk.

Unlike the Weekend Herald, an Auckland-based newspaper with a national circulation, the Sunday Star-Times has no specific base and has to appeal widely without regional attitude. This gives it the same “nice” aura of North & South as opposed to Metro’s confident bitchiness. There’s twelve pages of local news (7.75 pages without the ads) and six pages of world news (just over three pages without ads). The meatiest article is about local food prices and is three pages long – but that would be a single page of text without the large photos and ads.

The cartoons! Two large colour political cartoons by Al Nisbet, which seems a bit greedy. One I just don’t “get”, and the other I get, but it’s not funny. At the very bottom of the puzzle page and just screaming “space filler” are two syndicated American comic strips, Non Sequitur and Cul de Sac. There must’ve been a special on the ones with French titles. These cartoons are inoffensive, mediocre, funny only in a “meh” kind of way, blandly drawn and coloured, and utterly fucking culturally irrelevant to a New Zealand newspaper with their white, white characters and their yawn-inducing solid Midwestern values. Calvin & Hobbes, Footrot Flats, Bloom-sodding-County, where are you now we need you?

Unfortunately it seems there isn’t a single comic strip artist in New Zealand who could provide something exponentially better that might make people want to read the newspaper, instead of making them want to shove their head in the microwave until it goes “ping”.

There’s also a review of Posy Simmonds’ Tamara Drewe, which says “You wouldn’t really know that the film derives from a graphic novel, because it doesn’t have a cartoonish vibe”, and it was at this point that I shouted “Fuck off!” and flung the ‘Focus’ section at a wall, where it exploded in a shower of pulp… and the music swelled…

Much communication
In a motion
Without conversation
Or a notion
Avalon…
When the samba takes you
Out of nowhere
And the background’s fading
Out of focus
Yes, the picture’s changing
every moment
And your destination
you don’t know it
Avalon…

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