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Notes on the redesign

October 24, 2008 |  1:03 pm

More than 300 readers have commented on the design changes introduced Tuesday in the print version of The Times. A note from Editor Russ Stanton in that day's paper invited readers to call or write.

As editors in the Letters to the Editor department can attest, and as anecdotal evidence from this office shows, people are more likely to take to the phones or computer when they're peeved. So it's notable that some 20% of those who commented praised the moves overseen by Michael Whitley, assistant managing  editor for design (with notes like this from reader Ron Ching in Manhattan Beach: "We love the L.A. Times' new format! Very formal in a cool way.")

As for the other 80%, here are the top complaints. The editors' responses are below.

Readers...

  • asked for the return of the Page A2 index
  • want the weather returned to the front page
  • asked about the change in datelines and bylines
  • wanted Morning Briefing back in Sports

Two overall themes also came up repeatedly: readers fretting that the focus was on design more than the content, and saying that The Times has shrunk too much of late.

A2 INDEX

Page A2 used to include summaries and page numbers of various stories throughout the paper. The page now features several notable quotations from people in articles throughout the paper, as a way to inform readers about the subjects and point them toward those pieces.

From reader Martin Kantor of San Diego: "Your new format for Page A2 left me puzzling where the most important news articles were to be found. All these years you listed (and briefly summarized) the highlights (and some lowlights) for your readers' convenience.  Substituting a big-type section of quotes is surely a poor choice for your avid news buffs."

Michael Whitley responds: "Readers we talked with didn’t find the news in brief as useful as we would have hoped for the amount of time it takes to create and edit. The new A2 is a work in progress that we hope will become a more of a destination. As we continue to evolve it, we are interested in what readers would like out of that space." (The readers to whom Whitley refers are those who talk to him in the course of his workday, as well as some groups of dedicated readers queried by The Times over months about various parts of the paper.)

DATELINES, BYLINES

An example of a newly designed Times byline is, "Patrick J. McDonnell reporting from Buenos Aires." Previous to the redesign the byline would have said, "Patrick J. McDonnell, Times Staff Writer," with the words "Buenos Aires" in boldface leading into the first sentence of the story.

Oscar E. Williamson of Silver Lake wrote, "I strongly disagree with not having the LOCATION in BOLD-FACED, CAPITAL letters at the beginning of a story, as traditional style calls for. As it is now, that important piece of the information is buried beneath the writer's name, which most readers pass over, starting right into the report." Reader Bob Niccum of Buena Park wrote: "Expansion of the dateline to include 'Reporting from ... ' is quite an insult: Did you really think that your readers were unable to understand what a simple reference to 'Sacramento' at the beginning of an article represented?"

Suffice it to say that enough readers are confused by the meaning of the dateline that it's under "Frequently Asked Questions" (see "Why can't I talk to your foreign correspondents ... ") in this very journal. For one example, a recent article about Peru's Cabinet resigning with a dateline of Buenos Aires brought a chastising note from a reader who clearly didn't realize what the city at the start of the story indicated. She demanded a correction, because, she wrote, "Buenos Aires is in Argentina, while this story takes place in Lima, Peru's capital city." Like other readers she did not realize that the dateline is where the reporter is writing the story, not where the event is taking place.

One more criticism reflecting several readers' views was in an e-mail from reader Clark Secrest of Laguna Niguel: "The new byline policy obfuscates the fact The Times is increasingly non-staff written.  And you thought we wouldn’t notice."

If an article is in The Times, says Editor Russ Stanton, it means it's been vetted and found credible whether written by a freelancer, a stringer or a Times staffer: "There were 63 stories in Tuesday's paper that carried the names of individuals as bylines (these were stories that were not provided by the wire services.) Of those, 61 were by Times staff writers. The other two were from freelancers.  All of these stories were edited by Los Angeles Times editors and met our high standards of providing top-notch and unique content  for our readers." Having a name with no affiliation by it, says Stanton, "is a trend across our industry, as evidenced by similar treatment of bylines in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal."

WEATHER

Along the bottom of the front page used to be a few words about the weather, along with the downtown high and low temperatures and a note telling readers where to find the full weather page. M. Milo Mandel of Beverly Hills wrote: "Do you TRY to make the Times less helpful? Is there some great scheme in moving the simple short two line weather prediction from the bottom front page to the weather page? It is the first place I look as I unfold my paper each day. Why isn't it there?"

Whitley responds: "The reason we dropped the basic forecast and high and low temperatures is they didn’t accurately reflect the weather in the region we cover. The simple Page A1 forecast might be accurate for downtown, but then be completely wrong for Santa Monica, the Valley and Pasadena. Our weather page has a forecast for different areas that are in different microclimates. So we thought in the interest of being accurate, we should send people to the weather page."

Mandel added: "I realize Los Angeles has many weather zones, but having the prediction including temperature in a simple short statement on the front page allows each of us to make our own mental adjustment as to the day's weather where we live and work, higher in the valley, lower in Santa Monica."

SPORTS' MORNING BRIEFING

Scott Wright of Pasadena wrote, "I have always thought that the best part of the paper was the Morning Briefing section in the Sports section. That was one of the main things that set it apart from other papers that I read when I travel around the country.... When I noticed that after all of these years that Morning Briefing was missing I thought that was one of the absolute worst decisions that could be made. I would be slightly interested in knowing the thought process of why this decision was made but would be much more interested in having that section returned to its rightful place."

Sports Editor Randy Harvey responds: "This has been a popular feature of the Los Angeles Times for many years for our readers and also the newspapers that subscribe to our syndicate. But when done correctly, it is labor intensive. With further cuts in personnel coming to the newsroom, and with most of the personnel we still have working on more than one platform, we no longer have the manpower to devote to Morning Briefing on a daily basis. We regret this change."

A current running through many of the comments, both the praise and the criticisms, was the worry that even as more news is published online, there's less in the paper itself. Design is fine, said a number of readers, but not if it's at the expense of content. From reader Linda de Vries in Whittier: "I read the words in a newspaper. Each time you change the format it is a cover for reducing the number of words -- more white space, larger headlines, more wide, dark bars -- anything to fill up the increasingly fewer sheets without increasing the number of words (or ideas)."

The latest redesign doesn't take away space for news, says Whitley, so it might be that readers are talking about changes and cuts over the past year. Whitley and Stanton confront the question often, and in public talks and in e-mails sent to readers, they respond by emphasizing that editors are not picking one over the other. Whitley summarized the editors' thinking in an e-mail: "No one here believes new section flags or drawings of our columnists are a replacement for great reporting. Design is not a substitute for content. It is a tool to organize it.  We did not divert resources away from newsgathering to complete a rethinking of how the paper should look. And the new styles allow for just as much (or in some instances more) content in the paper than before. Being journalistically sound does not excuse us having difficult-to-read caption type. And trying to improve the design where we can does not mean abandoning our journalistic mission. I don’t believe good design and first-rate content are mutually exclusive ideas. The Los Angeles Times can and should have both."

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