One day, the boss was bored

November 12, 1995|By Peter A. Jay

HAVRE De GRACE -- ''Isn't it awful,'' she said, ''what they've done to The Sun?''

We were in McLhinney's News Depot here the other Sunday morning, and I was buying my usual pile of newspapers, including the object of her distress. Because I didn't know her all that well, and because I was in a hurry to get on up the street to Ellen Glassman's Java By the Bay for a scone and a cup of coffee, my response was wimpily neutral.

''I guess I would have preferred it if they'd left it the way it was,'' I said, ''but really I don't think it's so bad.'' She sort of rolled her eyes. But she did buy the paper, even though she was glaring at it on her way out.

Everybody's a critic

Her comment was one of dozens I've heard since The Sun went into the shop recently for an overhaul and a paint job. Most were hostile. But I didn't find that surprising, and neither, I'm certain, did The Sun's editors. It's well established that most people would rather have their underwear drawer rearranged by their mother-in-law than have someone mess with their newspaper.

I'd have to say that as they've evolved over the years, my own tastes in newspaper design are what you might call conservative. (I'd actually prefer to call them classic, while someone else might say they're prehistoric. But anyway, they're not modern.) It has always seemed to me that you buy a newspaper for what's written in it, not the type style or the white space that surrounds the text.

The late Price Day, editor in chief of The Sun and one of my personal newspaper heroes, often expressed similar sentiments. It's said that once, upon listening to someone's proposal to update the paper's typography and layout and make its appearance more cutting-edge, he wistfully remarked that in his view the most beautiful newspaper pages he'd ever seen consisted of eight columns of solid type. Everyone laughed.

That was before the eight-column format went out of fashion and was replaced by six columns. Now, with the latest overhaul, we're back to seven columns. Mr. Day might be pleased to see the pendulum swinging back his way, but he'd note that it has a long way to go. The type in those seven columns is far from solid.

Now that I've begun to get used to The Sun in its latest outfit, however, it seems to me that it could be a lot worse. I think the redesign is basically dignified and not without distinction.

Faintly European

The overhauled Sun has a faintly European appearance, and although I've heard muttered complaints about a resemblance to USA Today I don't think they're justified. In the great days of its past The Sun had a look of its own, and while the recent redesign doesn't recapture that old individuality, at least it hasn't made the paper look like a first cousin to half the major dailies in the country.

My major objection is the similarity of the section fronts. It's not unreasonable, perhaps, that the Maryland section from a distance looks exactly like the front page. But the Today section, and Perspective on Sunday, look the same as well, although their function isn't the same at all. This forced consistency of format makes the paper, as a whole, look less varied and interesting than it actually is.

All of this begs the fundamental question asked by many readers -- why change at all? There are probably two answers.

One has to do with consultants, surveys, focus groups and research. Once you assign people to find out how something can be improved, you can be very sure that they're not going to come back and recommend the status quo. Institutionally, once change is formally discussed, it becomes inevitable.

And then there's the restlessness so much in evidence among high executives of large companies, a recognition that the line between stability and stagnation is a fine one and that sometimes you have to sacrifice the former in order to avoid the latter.

A logical explanation

One morning, when I was a reporter at the Washington Post in the days of Ben Bradlee's editorship, I came to work to find the place in turmoil. Editorial feathers weren't just ruffled, they were floating everywhere in the air. The blood of careers was on the floor. So many editors had been fired, promoted, transferred overseas or assigned to scutwork that it felt as though a tornado had just blown through. Reporters gathered in clusters to analyze the upheaval.

''What's going on?'' I asked someone who'd been around a long time. ''Bradlee was bored,'' he explained.

Whatever causes it, even change for the better can be unsettling. But it also can be cyclical. One day, perhaps, a newly remodeled Sun will again publish pages containing eight columns of solid, beautiful type, and you can bet there will be complaints about it.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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