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Oversized graphics: Invasion of the space snatchers

COMMENTARY | August 17, 2006

Think huge, out-of-proportion art dresses up newspaper pages? Think people don’t notice it or that it draws readers to stories? Gil Cranberg notices it, and he’s got a thing or two to say about it.

By Gilbert Cranberg

A recent Romenesko item headed “Do readers really care if there are ads on the front page?” noted that BusinessWeek’s Jon Fine suspects that “only the most navel-gazing of journalists care about a small ad appearing on Page One.” Probably true, but only because those “small ads” are seen in isolation. Do the numbers, and small ads over time aggregate to a large amount of prime space for news switched to advertising.

I did the numbers for the Des Moines Register, which recently put one-inch ads daily across the bottom of the front pages of five sections. In the course of a year, those seemingly inconsequential strips will equate to more than 90 pages of news lost to ads.

Ad strips at least bring in revenue, which pays for newsprint, salaries, training, travel and other expenses that can improve a newspaper’s quality. The same can’t be said for the very large number of column inches that seem increasingly to be devoted to oversized graphics. Call it the Invasion of the Space Snatchers.

It’s not unusual nowadays for artwork to dwarf, by large margins, the stories they illustrate. The Sunday New York Times is a major case in point. The Aug. 6 Week in Review section, for instance, devoted 34 column inches of text to a piece about Ariel Sharon but all of 55 column inches to two pics of Sharon.

The Space Snatchers attacked again on another story in the same section with a jumbo graphic that stretched the full length of the page for two columns, and then some. The graphic? Of all things, a tape measure, which, if editors had utilized one, they would have found the art had gobbled up nearly twice the space taken by the story.

Times readers tend to be intensely interested in news. They are, by and large, the proverbial news junkies. I question whether they have to be lured to stories by having them jazzed up with massive art. Unless the Times reins in its artists it may have to change its motto to, “All the news that’s fit to print, graphics permitting.”

I am not talking here about illustrations, such as graphs, that help tell the story. What I see, much too often, are inflated illustrations that gobble up space without a payoff in information.

I have a lot of respect for the work of graphic artists. I relied on them extensively to dress up our opinion pages at the Register. I believe in making newspaper pages attractive, and I was an early user of color on editorial pages. In fact, I recently heard from a former staff member who now heads a very large staff of designers and artists at a major paper who wrote to thank me for inspiring her to do newspaper graphics, so I am not anti- newspaper art. That said, too much of what I see nowadays looks to be a mindless effort to overwhelm readers with size. The adage “more is less” makes as much sense for newspapers as it does in other walks of life.

If people want a visual medium, they can turn on the TV set, which no newspaper can rival no matter how much is invested in graphics. Readers subscribe to newspapers for text, not for artwork. To the extent that newspapers substitute overly-generous graphics for news and opinion they shortchange readers and alienate them.

When I see splurging on graphics I wonder, “Where was the editor?” Space is an editor’s prize possession, but editors who do not hesitate to trim inflated stories seem to put away their red pencils when art is involved. They should no more abdicate to artists than to reporters.

The upsurge in bloated newspaper graphics is occurring, oddly enough, at the same time that newspaper companies are offering buyouts and turning cartwheels to trim costs. It would be a sound investment by newspaper companies to give readers more news and opinion by going easier on the art.                                        

Text and see
Posted by Peter Ong - Newspaper consultant, Australia, and Regional Director, Society for News Design
09/07/2006, 07:45 PM

Case studies from Japan show the fallacy of Mr Cranberg's argument. At one time (not so long ago), the circulations of the two biggest newspapers in that country were well above 18 million copies each. That's daily.

Today, their circulations have dropped by more than 10 per cent each.

Both the Asahi Shimbun and the Yomiuri Shimbun used to be much grayer than traditional Gray Ladies like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Pictures were postage stamp sized. Graphics? Non-existent.

Both papers have woken up to the fact that people, especially the young, are leaving newspapers in droves.

They have introduced bigger pictures, colour and graphics to halt the decline.

Latest figures show that more younger people are coming back.

Here's another test for Cranberg's argument: Remove all visuals and all advertising from newspapers and see what the result will be. Any guesses?

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