The New York Times'design director defends its new welcome mat.

Media criticism.
April 1 2008 5:57 PM

The Times' New Welcome Mat

The paper's design director defends its expanded summary pages.

"Inside the Times." Click image to expand.
"Inside the Times"

As recently as March 24, the New York Times' A section   began with its traditional gallop.

After bombarding readers with its incendiary Page One, the newspaper dared readers to catch their breath with the Page 2 "News Summary." The sprint resumed and didn't end until the last news page had been turned.

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Then on March 25, the Times more than doubled the space given to summaries, spreading them over Pages 2 and 3 and renaming the feature "Inside the Times." Page 4, once the reliable home of international news, now does meta duty, too, presenting a digest of NYTimes.com pages and serving as the paper's new home for corrections. Now the newspaper reads as if it begins with three speed bumps.

For ink-stained page turners, it was as if the quicksilver Times had put out deck chairs and free tea and invited readers to linger over the news—instead of bolting after it like wild dogs. For many veteran readers of the Times, these magaziney table-of-contents pages fit like a loose suit and read like a celebration of white space.

What did the paper cut to accommodate this expansion? Tom Bodkin, assistant managing editor and design director at the Times, says the paper's new kickoff doesn't come at the expense of any inside news or features. And rather than trying to ruin the paper with a Chinese-restaurant-length menu, Bodkin asserts that he is trying to improve the paper.

"People say they have less and less time to read the paper," Bodkin says. Any way you look at it, he adds, competition for readers' attention has never been greater. The new summary acreage will provide readers with useful "shortcuts" to the tens of thousands of words inside and help direct their attention to Web site features they'd otherwise miss.

Arriving with the new pages is a redesigned reefer box at the bottom of Page One, one that further redefines navigation, as well as a more emphatic introduction of international news and a typographical tweaking of the briefing boxes.

"Definitely attached to this whole change to the front of the book was giving the 'International Report' a display page, a real opening," he says.

"The criticism I've heard is, 'We've got to plow through four pages until we get to the real news?' You know, plowing through four pages? I feel like I'd like to put together a little video that shows you how to turn two pages," Bodkin says. "If you're not interested in that two-three feature, skip it."

"If you scan A1 and you read two and three, you've got an overview of any significant news event of the day," he adds. Getting that same "taste" would otherwise require flipping every page, "which is less efficient."

Bodkin isn't dismissive of the new look's critics, acknowledging that different readers have different styles of reading.

His intent is to set out "the thematic organization of the paper a little more aggressively. Which, again—for the hardcore reader—isn't all that important. But it's a big, complicated paper, and it helps to organize the paper."

By the conclusion of our interview, Bodkin had talked me down from my ledge. I'm not sure Times readers want or need such a condensation, but having been given permission by the architect of the new welcome mat to ignore it, I'll do my best to coexist.

******

What do you make of the new summaries? Send your two cents to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

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Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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