The Sentinel & Enterprise is a daily newspaper published in Fitchburg, Massachusetts that is the stereotypical local newspaper trying to survive. To go along with its daily print newspaper, the Sentinel also has a very popular online component that is growing on a regular basis. But even with its relatively low level of success in an industry that is struggling, the Sentinel is still looking for ways to bring attention to what it is doing.
Anna Schuleit Haber is an artist from New Orleans that decided to approach the Sentinel with a unique project. Through her contacts at the Fitchburg Museum of Art, Schuleit Haber proposed that she be allowed to dictate the cover art for the front page of the Sentinel for 26 days. The first editor that Schuleit Haber and museum director Nick Capasso talked to was extremely interested. But it took some selling to get publisher Mark O’Neil on board. After a little negotiating, Schuleit Haber had her front page and the project was underway.
The Sentinel’s Conditions
O’Neil had three conditions that Schuleit Haber must agree to before he would allow the project to move forward. The Sunday front page was not part of the project, breaking news would pre-empt the project on any day, and the paper’s’ editors had to approve the content that Schuleit Haber submitted before it would be published. The artist agreed and the art started coming in.
Risk And Reward
The Sentinel itself expressed a few risks for the project that could have made the project a failure. One of the biggest risks is trying to bring together so many seemingly unrelated elements into a coherent front page was extremely risky. Especially since the front page content was not usually news related.
Another significant risk is alienating readers and making the subscription base angry. People buy the newspaper for news and not art. The Sentinel was concerned that its readers may not completely understand what is going on and that could affect paying subscriptions.
On the other hand, if the project was a success then it would bring the Sentinel a great deal of national and possibly international exposure. It would also expose readers to something different that they may appreciate and would want to see more often.
The Basis Of The Project
The project went on for 26 days because it was based on the letters of the alphabet. Schuleit Haber put out the word to typographers all over the world to contribute and not one of them refused. She chose 26 artists and they all picked their own letter. Schuleit Haber then arranged the written content with the art and submitted it for approval. Once the Sentinel’s editors approved it, then the front page was published.
The Sentinel was actually not in as dire a situation with this project as many people would think. The Sentinel’s large digital subscriber base was able to easily bypass the art if they wanted to and the overall negative effect on the paper itself was limited.
The Fitchburg Art Museum is framing and displaying each new front page as it is published and the library is putting up the front pages in its display cases at the end of each row of books. The project is being presented by the Sentinel as a gift to the community and so far it has been met with positive feedback. But more important than the feedback is the way in which this project is altering the way that readers interact with a printed newspaper. The Sentinel is exposing readers to a form of art that they may not be familiar with and, in response, the readers are showing that they appreciate the effort the paper is making to try something different.
The Sentinel experiment has shown that a printed newspaper can still have an effect on the community it serves. People want to read the news when they get the newspaper, but people are also open to trying something different every once in a while. Schuleit Haber says that she loved being embedded in the Sentinel newsroom and picking up on local news stories that helped to enhance her cover art project. It remains to be seen of the people of Fitchburg really understood what the project was all about, but the positive response indicates that it was a project worth trying.