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Get with the '90s - they're almost over.

The strength of newspapers as a mass medium lies in local coverage.

More and more people get their national and world news from television, but they still turn to their local paper for news about their neighbors.

Television can do a great job with spot news, natural disasters, and sports events, or with stories that have strong visual images to accompany them. TV does less well with news analysis, commentary, and opinion - the hallmarks of a good newspaper opinion page or section. Television news programs, whether local or national, simply do not successfully perform the opinion functions that newspapers do.

So, even in a highly competitive information marketplace, one area of strength that newspapers enjoy tends to be relegated to only a page or a little more. And then, rather than focus on trying to help readers make sense of the ever-more complicated news of the day, the page sticks to a shop-worn formula of editorial comment, syndicated columnists, a cartoon, and letters to the editor.

The editorials tend to be terse; they use enigmatic one-line heads; and they blithely assume that readers are already well aware of any news peg. The cartoon(s) and the columns are usually not local and tend to talk of issues in a broad way, rather than zeroing in on the local angle. (If a reporter wrote stories that way, an editor would inform him or her to rewrite and push that local angle more tin the news.)

The content available that day has little to do with the space given or the layout of the page. It's a page - no more, no less - almost no matter what, and it always looks exactly the same, regardless of what's in the queue that day. You have to run editorials, even if you have nothing in particular to say: There's that space to fill. The cartoon has to go right there and Edna simply must have her photo logo in each issue.

What do all these lamentations have to do with design? Newspaper design is functional design, i.e., its primary goal is functional (the reading of the content), not cosmetic. The design is for the information. It is, in fact, a lubricant for information. Without information, design has no reason to exist. Therefore, the information is the starting point for all design. That's why we have this discussion of content in an article purportedly about design.

The information on most editorial pages, as well as the design, needs attention. You should be rethinking the quality of the wine in the bottles before you get involved with creating a new label for the bottle.

With that in mind, let's check out both the wine and the label at a few pages from some small dailies: the Longmont Daily Times-Call in Colorado, The Register-Mail in Galesburg, Ill., and the Pottsville Republican in Pennsylvania. I recently have completed design critiques for all three, and I am involve in a typographic makeover project for the Republican.

FIGURE 1. Longmont Times-Call. The page is titled "Commentary," in a large sans-serif typeface. Probably too large and strong. All five packages on the page are boxed with a thin line. I like that the page has only one editorial. clearly the page editor had nothing else of importance to say that day and wisely didn't. Too often, the "down-the-left-hand-column" layout of editorial pages forces you to print editorials when perhaps you don't have enough to say. I really don't mind the low placement of the cartoon for a change, although the page becomes a little bottom-heavy.

The grid on this page is unusual in that the editorials are in a narrower column structure than the rest of the page - the opposite of the typical page.

I like the bold, sans-serif, all-caps label over the editorial. I think we need to take every opportunity to help readers understand the different approaches the copy takes on this page. The obvious question, however, is: Do readers even understand what an "editorial" is?

The label over the letters package - which hasn't a logo - works less well. It refers to only one of the three letters, yet it runs over the top of all three. This suggests a connection to all three that isn't there.

The heads are Helvetica medium, a face I find a bit bland and quiet. The size of the top right column seems big to me as well. There is nothing particularly new or important about the column, so I don't think the head should shout at the reader.

I do not like the masthead to be at the bottom of the page. It can look like an ad when placed there. I prefer it to be worked in at the top, over the editorials themselves, if possible.

Overall grade: B

FIGURE 2. The Register-Mail. The page also has an overly large page flag. I don't think the day needs to be listed. A flag this size for basically a one-page section is a waste of space.

The page uses a basic four-column grid, which I think is a bit wide. The column at the bottom looks especially squashed and heavy at four columns. The rule of thumb is to use narrower columns at the bottom of a page to avoid that heavy look.

The label over the editorial is an outline type and nearly invisible to the naked eye. The purpose of a label is to draw the eye and inform. This one - "Comment and Review" - does neither very well. How is an editorial comment and review, and a column not? Again, I would say that a reader could easily be confused. The editorial, by the way, is signed, a departure from the norm.

The column logos are too big for my taste. I would prefer something more like a half-column in size. With such a large grid, even that would be a sizable photo.

The heads are a transitional roman that works well, except for the italics head. I would always suggest a change in weight for your accent head, not a move toward italics. That italics head, by the way, is as enigmatic as they come: "Nature is unpredictable." What is the column about? Don't try to tease readers into entering a story or column. Write a headline that invites them into the content.

Again, we find the masthead near the bottom, though it is at least within the module that contains the editorial. The AP's Almanac is used as a filler within the model as well.

Overall grade: C

FIGURE 3: Pottsville Republican. This page uses only a "page-topper" label that says "Opinion/Commentary" in a bold sans-serif. I think this is a more realistic aproach if you are going to stick with only one page or so. It does reduce the importance of the page, however, so I would at least consider moving the masthead to the top and making the page-topper a bit bigger. This would also mean that it would be bigger than any other page-topper.

The masthead here is quite large, and surprisingly, it also includes the date and page number. A long list of organizations that have given awards to the paper takes up most of the space. I am not certain if this is the proper place for such a list, other than the mention of the Pulitzer.

The grid is the same basic six columns found on the news pages. I would rather see something different on this page. Letters run on the following page, a bit lost among ads and fillers.

The photo logos are reasonably sized, but need a fresher look. They are placed well at the top of the second leg of type. The use of the "Editorial" logo at the top of the second leg of that piece is a nice touch. Readers truly don't understand that a larger typeface by a point is the clue to editorial comment.

The head face is a roman, and a change in weights is used well for the second deck heads. I really appreciate the use of something other than one-liners on the ed page. It is all too rare to see this. I would very much like to see it kept.

I am used to finding "Doonesbury" on editorial pages because of its occasional controversial content, but "Peanuts"?

Overall grade: B-

All three pages have various strengths and weaknesses in the column grid, typography, and placement of elements. But I believe all three are hampered by today's "old-fashioned" conception of what this section (let's not say page) can be if the old recipe is filed away for fond remembrances and a new one created. We need to be more a part of newspapers as they leave the 1990s for the new century.
COPYRIGHT 1993 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Author:Bohle, Robert
Publication:The Masthead
Date:Dec 22, 1993
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