Some readers struggle with redesigned newspaper

October 02, 2005|By PAUL MOORE | PAUL MOORE,SUN PUBLIC EDITOR

Sun editors were so determined that readers be prepared for the paper's sweeping redesign that they published a 10-page explanatory guide just before its launch on Monday, Sept. 19.

"We wanted a newspaper that better reflects the demands and interests of readers in this busy, complex, high-definition world of ours," said Editor Tim Franklin.

The first reactions were much more negative than positive. Many found the increased emphasis on color and index boxes "glitzy," "jarring" and "obtrusive" and the text hard to read. Many also complained that the newspaper's tone was less serious.

More recently, as some readers have adjusted to the redesign, the overall reaction has become more balanced.

Some felt like Nelson Marans, who said, "When I first saw the new format, not only the front page but the entire paper, I was dubious, clinging to the past. The second day I was partly impressed and willing to give it a second chance. Now after a week, I am enthusiastic about the changes."

Others, like Roscoe Born, continued to object fiercely: "At best, I find it confusing; at worst, hideous." Referring to the redesign guide, Born said: "In my lifetime of reading newspapers, this is the first one that ever came with an owner's manual - and needed it."

The redesign debate has many threads: It is about style versus substance, generational differences, what constitutes serious news and how a newspaper can reach a broad audience with widely varying desires and needs.

Some readers and journalists also worry that design has become so prominent that it calls attention to itself at the expense of writing and reporting.

Reaction to The Sun's redesign has been concentrated on two broad areas.

One is the refocusing of sections to make it easier for readers to find what they want and need.

The second is dramatic design changes, which can seriously alter a reader's perception of the newspaper's values and priorities.

The majority of readers seem to accept and like the new sections - Ideas, Movies Today, Modern Life, Varsity, A&E Today, Go Today - and the retooled sections: Health & Science, Taste, Travel, Live!, Business and Maryland. Only Sports has been criticized as too tough to navigate.

"I had to wait until I got the Sunday paper to make my final judgment," said Kathy Riley. "I really like the new Sun! The sections of A&E Today, Modern Life and Ideas offered a great variety of articles. I was really worried about losing Perspective because this was my favorite section in the Sunday paper, but Ideas is very good. ... Keep up the good work."

No single change has produced more comment than the "Hot-L," the L-shaped index at the top of the front page designed to promote stories inside. Some readers say this feature, with its white type on color backgrounds mixed with photos and icons, is the main reason the newspaper appears less serious.

"This `L' index on the front page is the ultimate distraction," said Nadine Weinstein. "It overwhelms the news with lesser and frivolous material and is an insult to serious readers, who want news first, not fluff." J.M. Giordano, who likes some of the design changes, said simply, "Please get rid of that "L" on the front page."

Others called the "Hot-L" the ultimate dumbing-down device. In fact, in the first days there have been several awkward juxtapositions between the "L" and news content.

Reader Karen Hammer cited Tuesday's lead photo, "Bomb destroys U.S. armored vehicle," and the adjacent index item, "Funky Fashion," which featured a photo of a model in a short dress. "This layout was, in a word, grotesque," she said. "We need, and should have, levity and entertainment in our lives, but we must not, and should not, diminish the gravity of war and other tragedies so carelessly."

In my view, the lack of real separation between the "L" indexes and the news content is what is frustrating many readers. When indexes are on top of the nameplate ("THE SUN") they do not compete directly with news content for a reader's attention. This new format competes for attention with the front-age news.

Many readers also were dismayed by the elimination of indentations in the first paragraphs of articles. Sun editors realized this was distracting and have resumed first paragraph indents except in dateline stories and news briefs.

Readability of text and headlines is another major issue. "I am finally able to read the Sunpaper without squinting," said Pat Ann Brown. "The printing is a great improvement." But Harry Katz said: "The new type is much harder for me to read. I need a magnifying glass in some instances. I'm very unhappy."

Unhappiness is most evident among older readers. Many see the redesign as an attempt to lure and satisfy younger readers at their expense. Not surprisingly, a few have canceled their subscriptions.

I sympathize with those who are struggling with the redesign because The Sun has altered their comfort zone.

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