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No room for letters to the editor but plenty of room for graphics

COMMENTARY | August 08, 2007

Gil Cranberg says space is precious and it’s wrong for the Times, of all newspapers, to be squandering it on unnecessary, marginal illustrations, especially now that the paper has shrunk.

By Gilbert Cranberg

The New York Times poured salt on the wounds of its readers Aug. 6th when it told them that space for letters would be reduced by “about a third” but that expanded space for letters would be available on the Times Web site “where space is not an issue.” In other words, customers, go buy, steal, beg or borrow computers (perhaps from your grandchildren) to read letters from readers to your heart’s content. Besides, said the Times, it “was looking for ways to add space for letters on our pages.”

Readers had to wonder about the diligence of the search when they glanced at the op-ed page that same day. The lead article on the page was dwarfed by a massive graphic that swallowed the piece it illustrated. In fact, it was, according to my numbers cruncher, 42 per cent text and 58 percent graphic. Indeed, more space was devoted to the illustration than to all the letters printed that day -- 22 percent more.

Some illustrations are worth more than text because they provide information, often more effectively, than words alone. This was not that kind of graphic. To me, it looked like the pictures you see in a children’s’ book, but with little or no redeeming educational value.

But what do I know? The last time I complained, on this site, about the excessive use of art in newspapers, I was booed by the “graphics community” as an aesthetically-challenged know-nothing.

I am renewing the complaint because, with newspapers narrowing their widths, it’s more urgent than ever that they quit shortchanging space for news by running splashy, oversized graphics that make minimal contribution to understanding the news. It’s as though there’s a virus in the land causing copy-cat editors addicted to excessive art to follow each other over a cliff.

Perhaps the Aug. 6 Times op-ed page was an aberration, aggravated by especially unfortunate timing. But I fear not. A couple of days later there were more illustrations, which I won’t attempt to describe, of an op-ed piece. Again, the art did nothing to better understand the article and again consumed more space than the text.

What the Times does is important because of its reputation for probity. So when editors see what I see, and then on Sunday a less-meaty Week in Review section that at times features page-length graphics, it has to encourage the “graphics community” to emulate, if not outdo, the Times.

It’s surprising, to say the least, for a paper with the kind of serious readership the Times has, to go overboard on graphics. Other publications should resist the temptation to follow its lead.

I am reasonably confident that I will be zapped for what some may regard as heresy. But it should go without saying that the issue isn’t art in newspapers, but its misuse. Readers simply aren’t being served when editors turn over gobs of space for oversized art at the expense of the news people expect to find, and need, in their papers.

The loss of room for letters, and, unavoidably, much else in the Times, as in the press elsewhere, ought to remind editors that space is a precious possession they cannot afford to squander.

THE UPPER CASE -- designer-style
Posted by Robert Knilands -
08/11/2007, 10:59 PM

Now we have a designer talking about headlines.

First, the headline here expresses the point of the writing. It wouldn't be what I would write, but it's not erroneous.

In the world of the designer, we'd get the following:

"GRAPHICS?" The headline would be all-caps and in at least 90-point type, with some sort of too-large illustration obscuring parts of it.

Then the subhed would read: "It's time to review big drawings" or something else almost virtually meaningless.

Then, because this is a "hard news" subject, the type would be put into hard reverse.

We'd also have an info box with a headline of "5 reasons to shrink graphics." The numeral 5 would be at least six times larger than the rest of the type and would take up its own line.

Then each point would be numbered, preferably with a colored numeral at least twice the size of the type.

About six inches of the article and the box would run on the front; the rest would be jumped inside onto a completely gray page. But that's not important, as the front could still be entered in an SND contest or some other event of no meaning to the readers.

Then the dollar-sized version of the page could be posted to a couple of sites, where designers would offer deep comments like: "Simple and clean!" or "That works for me."

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