by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif.
September 19, 2005
IS IT THE L.A. TIMES, OR A RANSOM NOTE?
LOS ANGELES, Sept. 19, 2005 -- Media criticism tends to concentrate on message content, but visual style is also critically important in holding the reader's interest. This is where the Los Angeles Times needs to learn how to be less imaginative.
Less imaginative, you ask? Yes, because in ignoring half a century of graphic-arts theory and development, the Times has created a front page that looks like a ransom note, a second page that looks like an old black-and-white catalog, and overall, a first section that is dull. The editors of the Times could check out a book on graphic design from the local public library and learn how to do a better job.
In examining the daily newspaper and how it presents itself to the reader, it becomes obvious that content and form are both critical elements that together determine whether or not anybody is willing to put fifty cents into the news rack or whether that person will continue the process by turning to Page 2.
Times-bashing is something of a local cottage industry here, but it concentrates mainly on content. For the average reader, though, the question of whether the Times got the latitude of Kabul right is less important than whether or not it makes for a good read.
This is where layout and design play their part. Does the visual element bring the reader to the story or does it just confuse? There is a case to be made that the layout hinders interest and comprehension more than it helps. Does story placement add to or subtract from the overall impact? There is a decent case to be made that story choice is tedious, at least when it comes to the first section of the paper.
Let's consider Friday's front page. Five different stories begin above the fold. The big headline, placed awkwardly to the right, is "Bush Promises a Massive Rebuilding of Gulf Coast." The story itself, a humdrum reiteration of what television viewers already knew, runs down the rightmost column. It is set off by a large photograph to its immediate left. There is also another headline visible directly under the picture: "President Seeks to Revive a Region - and His Image."
What is curious about this whole layout is the photograph itself, which is nestled between the two Louisiana stories. It shows a street in the New Orleans French Quarter, and on that street, a soldier and a woman holding her dachshund on a leash. What relevance this photo might have to the two stories, political reviews essentially, is beyond me.
One can imagine the editor thinking, "I want a photograph that communicates that things are not completely normal, yet are starting to come back. Here is a picture with a soldier in full camouflage gear next to a woman out for a walk. Her jeans and sandals are symbols of normality, while her bright pink blouse and blond hair provide compelling visual elements."
The problem is that the soldier is staring off into space with what looks like a forced smile on his face while the woman is just looking at him, standing in a posture that is reminiscent of badly directed amateur actors in student films. The message conveyed by the picture is ambiguous and confusing.
As a design element, the photograph doesn't complement the text. It is something by itself, and as a something it is more like a nothing. The photo caption actually contradicts the picture: "A Stroll in the Quarter: Kari Borg talks to Spc. Marco Alcantar while walking her dog Ruby through the French Quarter, one of several New Orleans districts to reopen soon." In the photo she is neither strolling nor talking.
None of this is a hanging offense, but in a newspaper with close to a million circulation, it is disappointing to see such sloppiness. There were lots of different ways to set these two stories on the page, but the attempt at artiness made the whole effect confusing rather than compelling.
At the risk of inducing anesthesia, let us merely mention the rest of the above-the-fold material: "More Iraqis Lured to Al Qaeda Group" is top-left. Underneath it is "Column One: Easing the Hard Time," discussing the life of imprisoned gang members. Directly above the fold in the second column is "News Analysis: Timing of Gov.'s Bid a Sign of Deep Woes." The Deep Woes story is an exercise in belaboring the obvious, namely that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger may have trouble getting reelected.
Aside from the article on prison life, there is little or nothing on this whole page that the average tv watcher wouldn't already know: The president gave a speech and promised the moon, the governor is less popular than last year, the situation in Iraq is unstable - what could possibly be new, or even interesting in all this gloom?
There is one story below the fold that is interesting, but only because its inclusion in a major newspaper provides critical validation. For days now, a story has been circulating on the internet about how the town of Gretna, Louisiana turned back refugees from the New Orleans flood. The story establishes and develops what began as little more than urban myth.
Below this is "Routine of a Class replaces the Chaos of Katrina." No, the Times has not joined the socialist international. The "class" referred to is kindergarten and the story explores the lives of children who have been removed to safer environs from the destruction in the southeast. Again, it's nothing different from what has already been done ad infinitum on television.
Perhaps we dwell overly much on story placement. What is harder to describe but equally off-putting is the strange typography. Seemingly no two headlines are the same size. They are larger and smaller, darker and lighter, narrow and broad. This does not contribute to graphical interest, it just makes for the visual equivalent of cacophony, a jarring chaos of sizes and densities. Stories are jammed into one column, two columns, three and four columns. The different sized type in the various headlines makes the page look like those ransom notes they show in the movies, where the kidnapper has cut letters from different sources.
Every one of the seven stories on the front page jumps to somewhere else. In order to read each of these stories, the reader would have to turn to Pages 9, 32, 30, 22, 16, 22 (again) and 27. This style is traditional newspaper practice, but isn't it time to reconsider some of these old practices? How many Times readers ever finish even one story in full?
Page 2 is worse.
Let me try to describe some of the difficulties. First, the news content makes up less than a third of the page area, and it is scrunched into the upper right corner. It's not entirely accurate to call it news content though. It's more like a series of teasers to stories. Under "Business," we notice "MSN, AOL May Join Forces" and under that, "Microsoft Corp. and America Online were said to be in preliminary talks to combine certain online operations." This unexciting preview invites us to read the rest of the story beginning on Page C1.
There is also a set of corrections to errors that occurred in previous days' stories that takes up the middle sixth of the page.
This is one of the most influential, best known newspapers in the country, yet if you buy it and turn to Page 2, you run into something that is about as interesting as a page of trigonometric tables. Why not put some decent writing there, a popular columnist perhaps, or something with local flavor?
The rest of the first section actually contains news stories, but the Times has taken a curious approach here. International stories lead (Pages 3 through 9), followed by national stories (through Page 34) to the end of the section.
"All politics is local," the saying goes, but for some reason the Times doesn't consider local news good enough to make part A.
Only when the reader gets to other sections of the paper is there news from the city or even from the rest of the state. (I am indebted to Brady Westwater, who writes Times criticism on LaCowboy.com, for pointing this out to me.)
We might compare the Times with another local paper, the Long Beach Press-Telegram. Saturday's edition of the Press-Telegram manages to create interest in its first three pages. A popular local columnist, interesting photographs, and news stories that encompass everything from the very local to the national fill the pages. It is attractive to the eyes and simple to get around.
The latter point is a little hard to describe in words, but the overly complex layout favored by the Times is replaced by a more straightforward setting for the Press-Telegram.
The Press-Telegram offers stories that relate directly to the people who live in its circulation area. Vandals using BB guns to break car windows receives coverage, as does the appointment of a local historic preservation officer. Pictures of a surfing competition fill the middle section of Page 2, the place where the Times saw fit to list its previous days' errors.
The Press-Telegram has its collection of New Orleans stories in the mix too, but the editors have chosen to take a more balanced approach to local vs national.
This is not nearly the whole story when it comes to the Los Angeles Times and the artistic choices it has made. Other sections actually look better and read better than part A. The second section, which deals with local and statewide news, is organized more like the first part of the Press-Telegram. It is vastly more interesting, readable and entertaining than part A. So, it is a legitimate question: Why have the editors chosen to let Page 1 and its immediate successors remain so dull?