By Kim Kropa
Newspapers are produced to be read, and the way stories are presented has a lot to do with whether or not that happens. The goal of a layout editor is to design a page that will be attractive enough to draw the reader in and yet still be easy to decipher and read. A reader shouldn’t have to do a lot of work – and probably won’t – to decipher what’s on a page. A cluttered, gray page is likely to get skipped right over.
Laying out a newspaper page can be a lot like putting together a puzzle: You’re presented with pieces of different sizes and shapes and expected to make them come together to form a coherent picture. Unlike a puzzle, there is no one definite place where each piece must go, no standard solution for each page.
While that does give a layout editor freedom and creativity in shaping the final picture, there are still some guidelines that should be followed to help that picture take shape in a way that makes sense.
From the Top: Headlines
A good newspaper layout draws a reader’s attention to the story deemed the most important. Decide which one of your stories deserves emphasis and play it up. Place it at the top of the page and use the headline to help the reader take notice.
Headline Size: When designing a headline, size does matter. The headline on the main story should be bigger than those of the other stories on the page, at least 12 points bigger is a good rule of thumb. Drop heads, also called subheads or kickers, can also help get a reader’s attention. Devoting extra space to a drop head makes the headline package look more substantial-that emphasis thing, remember?-and it gives the headline writer more of a chance to explain why the story is important.
The most commonly used headline sizes, in points, are as follows: 14, 18, 24, 30, 36, 42, 48, 54, 60, 72, 96 and 120. The smaller sizes – 18, 24, 30 – can usually be found on a drop head or sidebar headline.
Headline Width: When picking a headline size, it’s a good idea to keep in mind how long the headline will stretch. Big type in a narrow format – one or two columns wide – are very difficult to write.
Bumping Heads: It’s especially important to vary type size when running stories next to each other. You don’t want people to read across one headline and into the next. Varying the depth or number of lines of headlines running next to each other will help, as will placing a box around one of the stories or using a picture to move the headlines apart.
Headline Type Faces: The most commonly used styles of type are Roman, Italic, Bold and Bold Italic. These should be alternated to make the page more interesting and attractive. Common alternates are Bold/Italic and Roman/Bold Italic. For example, if the top head is Bold, make the drop head a somewhat smaller Italic. If there is no drop head, make the next head on the page Italic, also smaller than the head above it. The bottom headline should not appear stronger than the top one. Don’t get too fancy: Use only a few type faces and be consistent in how they are used. Using too many becomes distracting to the reader.
News versus features: Many papers favor Roman headlines for news stories and the more-relaxed Italic type for features.
Copy Blocks: Don’t overwhelm readers with large blocks of type. Break it up. Use a photo or graphic on every page, but remember that a postage-stamp-size photo or graphic won’t do the job. With the use of larger art in mind, determine appropriate word limits for each page. In longer stories, subheads are good for breaking up strings of type.
Templates: If your layout system allows, create a variety of templates, basic pages that include the elements (logos, headlines, pics) that you typically use on a given page in the proportions you would like to see them. Copy those templates as a starting point for your pages, so that you don’t have to start from scratch each time you lay out a page. Instead, find a template that is appropriate and start plugging elements into it.
On Paper: If you can’t make electronic templates, you can do the same thing on paper, drawing a variety of typical layouts for your pages. This lets you think ahead, for example, in terms of photos and graphics. It also helps you assign realistic word lengths. And, very important, it means you don’t have to start each and every page as if it had never been done before. Put them in a notebook or tape them to the wall for continuing reference. Keep refining them.
Reverse Type: Long strings of white type on a gray, black or colored background are very difficult to read and should be avoided. Likewise, putting type under shades of gray is off-putting and hard to read. You never want the presentation to cause a reader to skip right over the story.
Sidebar Placement: Put related stories together. If a story has a sidebar, put it next to or shouldered into the main story. Or start it on the same page and continue it, although don’t end up with just a few lines on either side. Many readers don’t bother to track down a jump page.
Crowding: Sometimes keeping stories together is difficult. It’s important not to overdo it, especially in a tabloid format. Try not to crowd a page by starting more than three on a tabloid page and then jumping them to another page. You risk bumping heads. Worse, it’s just plain confusing to readers. Things get jumbled, the hierarchy of stories can get harder to discern and it’s more difficult at first glance to tell what pictures or graphics go with which story.
Type Flow: As you lay out your page, you want all the puzzle pieces to fit together with nice, squared edges. When a story won’t quite fit in one neat, squared-off block, the temptation may be to let the last part of one article flow underneath an adjacent story. Don’t do it. That’s letting the story get away from it’s headline and picture. The copy looks sidetracked, like an afterthought.
Jumping Type: Often, there is just no way to design a page to include a reasonably sized photo or two and all the type from the stories budgeted for that page. In that case, the type must be continued, or jumped, to a page further back in the paper. Except in the case of the back page of a tabloid, never jump type to a preceding page. Only jump it if the subject matter warrants the length and not because the writer wrote too long.
Short Jumps: Make sure the jump is substantial enough to be justified. Jumping an inch or two of copy is hardly worth it and can lead to a situation in which the jump headline is almost as deep as the jumped copy. If a story is boxed, unboxing it can save space. Or trim the story to fit. Often, sentence tightening can be done without taking important information out of a story.
Photos and Graphics
Photo Size: Use photos big, if you can. You don’t want them to overwhelm a story, but tiny art usually doesn’t do much to illustrate a point. It also clutters the page. Beware of two same-size photos competing for the reader’s attention on a page. If more than one story has art, pick one photo and make it dominant.
Photo-to-Type Proportions: A layout editor needs to figure out a workable proportion of words to art on a page and stick to it. Newsday’s guideline is that 1,000 to 1,200 words on a tabloid page allows for a nice balance of art and type. If a story comes in longer than budgeted, trim it. That’s what writing to length is all about. If you know a story is going to be long in the first place, plan a jump.
Captions: Each photo should have a caption, one or two lines as wide as the photo identifying the people in the picture and, if not obvious, describing the action. Keep the captions short and to the point. Head shots should have the person’s name under them, either last name or first and last, depending on the paper’s style. If the action in the photo is obvious, use the caption to give other details.
Cropping Your Photo: Virtually all photos need to be cropped to the best possible size and shape. Get rid of the stuff that’s not important. Focus on the action, on the “point” of the picture. Avoid creating weird-looking situations by neglecting to notice what’s still in the picture, such as someone else’s nose or foot. If the subject is looking to the side, don’t crop right in front of the face. Allow a little room in the direction he or she is looking.
Tight Crops: A tight crop is good for getting rid of a busy background, people who aren’t relevant to the story and anything else that might take away from what the picture is supposed to illustrate. At the same time, don’t crop the picture to suggest something the original doesn’t.
Shapes: Ideally, crop the photo to its best shape and design the page accordingly. Trying to fit a photo into a pre-existing hole doesn’t always allow for the best crop, so be flexible and ready to change your layout if needed. Remember that the shape can be horizontal or vertical, regardless of how the picture came in.
Photo Placement: Don’t let placement of the picture interfere with the flow of the type. Don’t let it isolate one block of copy from another. A reader should be able to move smoothly from one block of type to the next and not have to search to find where the type begins again. Don’t place the picture at the edge of a page so that the subject is looking off the page.
Head Shots: Head shots are the exception to the bigger-is-better photo rule. Taking up a quarter of a page with a big picture of someone’s face is wasteful and looks odd. Head shots can vary from about postage-stamp size to a column wide, but keep it reasonable. Always get a good tight crop on a head shot: it’s the person we want to see and not irrelevant background. If head shots are side by side, make them even by lining up the eyes and cropping above the hair and below where the knot of a necktie would be.
Graphics: A graphic also is a good way to reinforce or supplement a reporter’s words. Pie charts, bar charts and grids can give important information quickly. Look at the information in the story and see if it can presented or expanded into graphic form. Stories comparing one thing to another are usually good for this.
Chart Size and Format: If you do decide to use a bar, pie or line chart, be careful about the format. Each unit of the grid should be large enough for the reader to easily figure out what the graphic is trying to show, but not so large as to be more white space than information. That wastes precious space and makes it obvious that you were just trying to fill. Create your own charts, ones that clearly show what you’re trying to get across. Reproducing charts from other sources is almost always a bad idea. They usually look muddy on newsprint and often are so specialized or technical that the reader is confused and the point is lost.
Color and Tint Boxes: A tint is a colored mass of dots over which type is printed, often used in boxes. The objective of using a tint box is to make a story stand out. The problem is that unless the tint is very light – gray or another light color – type can be very difficult to read. Or, if the tint is too light, the color can become washed out when it appears in the paper.
In general, when using a tint box, use colors such as gray, yellow or orange at about 20 percent. Using a color at 100 percent should be avoided because type tends to look muddy.
As for putting white type on a black box, called reversed type, avoid small boxes with small type, which is difficult to read. Also avoid large reversed boxes because they tend to overwhelm the rest of the page.
Newspapers are produced to be read. The way stories are presented has a lot to do with whether that happens.
Kim Kropa, a former assistant editor on the news desk at Newsday, received her law degree from Fordham University School of Law in 2003. She graduated summa cum laude from Stony Brook in 1994. Before graduating, she spent nine months as an intern reporter on the Long Island desk and four months as a copy-editing intern.