Monday, August 6, 2007

The Incredible Shrinking New York Times

The New York Times, starting with today's edition, has slashed 1-1/2 inches from the width of the paper "to the national newspaper 12-inch standard," it says on a front-page box. The move save on newsprint and "in some printing press locations, makes special configurations unnecessary."

The paper has retained a six-col layout and the cramped feeling of narrower columns is felt immediately; it seems as though their width is about the same as when the paper was 8-col.

Fewer Letters Fit To Print

The change appears most dramatic on the editorial page: editorials are the same width, which means that letters to the editor have lost an entire column. A special explanation is made here:
"As you can plainly see, the available space for letters has been reduced by about one-third.
There's no question that the smaller paper is easier to wield, though I suspect that the ancient technique of folding opened pages in half and reading it in quarters -- the better to turn pages on the crowded subway, a skill I learned when I was 10 years old -- will become a lost art.

"Don't worry. We are making up for the lost space in the printed paper by expanding the letters section on our Web site, where space is not an issue, and looking for ways to add space for letters on our pages."
I'm going to take a wild guess that someone who aspires to get a letter in the NYT will not be heartened to know that his chances of getting published are now better, but only online (where a copy of every letter published in the printed paper appeared anyway). Is this the right message: paper space is better doled out to four editorials and not to reader feedback?

The NYT is just following the lead of the Wall Street Journal, LA Times, Washington Post, USA Today and others but this is all a bit sad, in an admittedly silly way. Changes in icons are difficult to quickly accept, especially if the reasons for the change are just practical. The New York Times has been in my home all of my life. My parents brought it home every day and there was (perhaps an urban) legend in my family that my mother's father read each edition from cover to cover.

Get Them Young

The NYT was a presence for me even in a Queens elementary school, where students were expected to subscribe on the cheap, a New York Times program that addicted generations to come in a manner that could make cigarette companies sit up and take notice. We were taught the paper's conventions about story priority, the elegance of the news pyramid and, yes, even how to hold and read it like a straphanger, with one hand.

I have not accepted the not-terribly-many changes at the NYT easily (I am still getting used to their softer ledes). Though I now appreciate the move to six columns and larger type I thought when they were introduced that they were affronts to tradition. I was in college when the standard two-section daily exploded with specialty content sections. I was not impressed -- and annoyed I had more paper to control on the subway. But by the time Circuits was scaled back to within Business -- demoted from a section it too briefly comprised on its own -- I had become a complete convert and disliked the retrenchment.

There's no question that the smaller paper is easier to wield, though I suspect that the ancient technique of folding opened pages in half and reading it in quarters -- the better to turn pages on the crowded subway, a skill I learned when I was 10 years old -- will become a lost art. The NYT itself jokes on the Editorial page that the new smaller size "will alleviate subway overcrowding" because "(a)nyone (even the mayor) reading it on the train will now take up less space."

But it might have the opposite affect. Because the pages are a bit smaller riders may feel emboldened to open them in full since the wingspan is now 12 instead of 15 inches. And, sadly, the smaller mass does make the paper a little trickier to perform New York Times Origami and coax it into submission by that nearly indescribable method of shaking and bending and pulling taut and having it collapse under its own weight I learned a long time ago.

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