The page designers stayed late last night. Page 6 in the main section this morning carries the banner “Florida Report,” and the page chock-a-block with news briefs. The design is dominated by an outline map of Florida crisscrossed with oddly angled lines tipped with arrows to “link” a news brief to a city on the map.
Now, newspaper readers are quite familiar, after all these years, with the convention of using a story’s “dateline” as a place reference. And maps of Florida are easy to come by. There are the folded versions in the SUV’s glove box and the colorful ones in our children’s textbooks lying on the hall table. From the household’s almanac or atlas to the Internet, Florida and its cities are not mysteries.
So why does the state map occupy the largest, most eye-catching place on the page? How exactly does a block of news become more informative if an arrow directs the reader's eye to a dot labeled Jacksonville? What readers like are those helpful thumbnail maps that savvy editors insert into specific stories to clarify a highway extension project or the sale of a 4,300-acre ranch somewhere up the road. But a one-third-page huge map of the whole state? You gotta be kidding. You could have given us three more fresh news briefs instead.
The story arrows themselves create a mish-mosh of random angles that bisect the state at distracting angles. The information is about as orderly as a pile of Pick Up Stix.
Strangely, some stores don’t qualify for an arrow at all. Merritt Island isn’t on the map and so the stingray-stabs-man story doesn’t rate an arrow. This implies Sun editor-designers won’t bother to add a dot on the prefabricated map, even when there's news from the place. How helpful is that?
On the other hand, Tampa is on the map, but the Tampa story doesn’t get a line and an arrow. With today’s graphic, that would make a line to cross a line (a designer’s no-no). So, all the help the other lines might be providing isn’t going to be used with the Tampa story. Design trumps.
The page looks nice if we hang it on a bulletin board and step back about five feet – in other words, it’s an adequate school project. But does it serve the reader? Not by a long shot. In fact, it insults readers because it says (a) they don’t know where Naples is and (b) they need an arrow on the map to find it.
Dear Publisher: Yes, readers like attractive, inviting pages. But the Sun has looked so awful for so long that we've gotten used to it. Really. Remember when they used to call the New York Times "the gray lady?" Design is nice but news is better.
Find us good reporters and clear writers. Send them out to cover city hall, the sheriff's departments; ask them to visit our schools. Teach them how to read budgets, cultivate sources, and cross ethinic lines to reach people in our community who aren't pink and didn't go to college. On the human-interest side, let your reporters know readers want more than another "disease of the week" story that ends with a plea for money.
Let your reporters know readers want to know about the men and women who populate the numerous boards and quasi-governmental committees -- before we get all that interesting stuff in an obituary.
If you want to put all this on a pretty page with a big map, fine. But don't confuse design with substance.