Pandora and newspapers

Posted on February 18, 2009
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Pandora is a web site that plays music. Its developers devised what they call the music genome. Like the human genome, our particular combination of DNA, the music genome creates a unique creature.

In the case of Pandora, you tell it a few tunes or artists you like and it creates a unique music radio station just for you. The developers claim to have established hundreds of characteristics of music and then set up a program to analyse music for the combination of characteristics shared by the music and artists you like. You can also pick genres of music for your station.

You can have as many stations as you like and mix and match them for any mood.

In my opinion, it does a fine job. You can even tweak it by giving a thumbs down to any tune it plays that you don’t like.

I think that what editors have done with newspapers for the past 500 years has some similarities.

Abandoned art?

Now that the printed versions of newspapers seem on the way out, I wonder what will happen to the science and art of the organization and layout of newspapers. In the digital age, fragmented audiences can find very specific information and points of view. Might the newspaper editor’s art be abandoned?

When the objective was to get the reader to read as much of the paper as possible, editors developed all kinds of tricks to lure readers in and on.

My father used to say that people going on vacation take a book. People going to the hairdresser take a magazine. People going for coffee or lunch take a newspaper. I think I came up with the analogy that reading a newspaper was like eating salted peanuts. No one ever intended to eat the entire jar.

It is the editor’s job to get readers to eat as many news items, peanuts, as possible.

It was not done to cheat the reader but to enrich him, her. We all have found ourselves interested by something about which we would have denied any curiosity.

Incidentally A Rod

Incidentally, I can’t stop raving about the St. Petersburg Times. They do such excellent work there. They do many of the things community newspapers do.

Every paper, TV and radio network had the story about Major League Baseball, Yankees star, Alex Rodriguez being caught in a lie about taking steroids.

The Times went to a local playground, found a kid wearing an A Rod baseball shirt and interviewed him about how he feels about his hero now. Madonna’s name did not come up but that is another story for a different section of the paper.

I can almost smell the editor’s brain smoking as he remembered the timeless quote from the White Sox 1919 World Series scandal. All the Sox but one took bribes and threw the series.

As team star Shoeless Joe Jackson left the courthouse, a boy cried out “Say it ain’t so Joe! Say it ain’t so!”

To get back to the subject, editors use pictures, headlines, subheads, boxes, graphics, white space, colour, italics, bold face and the placement of items to get you to read.

Just to give one example of one challenge. Ed Arnold was a giant in the field of newspaper layout. By fitting readers with goggles that tracked their eyes as they read, he learned that the reading eye is subject to gravity. The western world eye goes to the upper left hand corner of the page as we were taught when we first learned to read. As it moves from left to right across the newspaper page, it tends to sag. It traces a lazy backwards S down the page. It tends to miss what is in the upper right hand corner and the lower left. Arnold called these the fallow corners like dead fields where nothing grows.

To combat that, editors know they have to put something punchy there or use the space for another purpose. That’s why you see the UPC code and directory data in the lower left on many front pages. You often see the weather in the upper right.

Done well, layout enriches the readers’ experience without the reader being aware of it. Quick now, how many vertical columns of type are there on the pages of the paper you read? Would you be surprised to learn that their width is important to your reading ease? There is no reason for you to know or care. You are the customer. I don’t know how my car works. That’s another amazing field of expertise.

When layout is done badly, you get those magazines that promise a story on the cover you can’t find inside. You get a goat’s breakfast of pages that you cannot tell apart from the advertisements. In a good magazine, not only can you tell editorial from ads, and tell which pictures go with which stories, you can recognize the page as being that magazine even when you see it without its cover. When Macleans put the captions for all the pictures on a page with just one of the pictures, that was some artist’s ego trumping your ease.

Bad graphic editing also leads to all those screaming, swirling, intros we see to TV shows. Many of them have nothing to do with adding to your ease of comprehension or enjoyment. They are simply unimaginative ways to try to attract your attention.

The good ones add to your enjoyment like the crazy tune at the opening to Boston Legal segments or the seedy New Jersey scenes and urban cool music at the opening of Sopranos episodes.

It will be interesting to see how your modern information sources balance giving you the precise information you want with broadening your range of interest, if they even try.

I hope they do. Your world will be narrower if they do not.

Isn’t it important that super stars know some young boy needs them to behave like the heroes he thinks they are? Whether a mother cares a whit about baseball or not, do you think she might be interested to consider what it means to her child? Shouldn’t she be?

I hope Pandora works in Canada. You can try it at:

On we go!                                          DAC


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