Friday, August 18, 2006

A Reply to Gilbert Cranberg on Newspaper Art

In his Nieman Watchdog commentary column, press critic Gilbert Cranberg says that the images used in newspapers are "huge" and "out of proportion" and people should lay down their arms against small advertisements on the front page. Cranberg takes to his newsprint examples with a ruler to measure out the text-to-image ratio - with "startling" results: it's not unusual nowadays for artwork to dwarf the stories they illustrate.

Pushing aside the ad component of his column for a moment, I must respectfully disagree, Mr. Cranberg. But only partially - you'll see why below.

As a longtime editorial page editor, Cranberg is symptomatic of being too wrapped up in the text to breathe. It's apparent to me that he's not considering the paper at large, and considers the arts department an accessory to the news. (In full disclosure, I've never worked in an arts department - only in news.) However, I can confidently say that a story can be told just as well by image as text. They're simply two different methods of doing the same thing.

It's my opinion that when one augments the other, one is weak and should be reconsidered. Only when they convey information on an equal plane does real synergy occur.

Mr. Cranberg makes a sound point when he says that there are some graphics that are simply unnecessary. His invoking of the image of a tape measure remains a solid example. However, I feel Mr. Cranberg argued too broad a swath to be effective (even with separating graphs and other "informational" graphics). This is why I partially dispute Cranberg's claims - honing this discussion offers different results.

In discussing newspaper images, we must distinguish between the use of "editorial" images and "style" images. For example, if a newspaper runs said large tape measure, and the story is about fixing a home, it 's likely unnecessary, and would be better served by a photo demonstrating a repair. However, if the article is about a house renovation, and offers a large photo of a before and after, I believe it's a just decision.

Furthermore, we must slice the pie even further by distinguishing between true photos and illustrations. It's my experience that most photo editors of major papers have the wherewithal to choose photos that are compelling and technically excellent (unless the breaking nature of a story determines otherwise), whereas there is far more leeway with illustrations, many unnecessary and oversized. Are these the "Space Snatchers" Mr. Cranberg should be addressing in specific? I think so. Unless the photo illustration is, again, essential - it has a tendency to bloat in inches. Sure, it colors a newspaper and spices it up, but careful, thoughtful placement is better than a tabloid-style plopping of a large graphic.

I urge you to be more specific in your requests, Mr. Cranberg. I'd love to read them.

Ultimately, though? I think you can't define with numbers what percent of a newspaper should be image and should be text. The reason "Joint Chiefs" meetings, as I call them, happen is because we've all got different opinions on usage and space and effectiveness. Newspapers are the product of many voices, often in contention. It's nearly impossible to say that one department is acting unilaterally at a good paper.

So in my opinion, writers should be more concise. With today's A.D.D.-style readership, I'm pretty sure that's a fact every editor can agree on.

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