Do newspaper readers and advertisers really care if a newspaper uses color photographs--or striking drawings, charts, graphs, maps and other visual elements that can make a paper appear more attractive and more carefully designed?
Many editors throughout the country think so.
"The response that we've had from readers tells us very, very clearly that that means something to them," says Christian Anderson, editor of the Orange County Register. "You . . . think about all the terrific work that newspapers do in terms of content . . . and what do people respond to most? 'Gee, that was a great color picture.' And they tell us that time and time again. 'Man, I really like the color in your paper.' "
American newspapers have used color sporadically as far back as 1891, but with few exceptions, color was neither common nor of good quality in newspapers until the development of different kinds of presses, computerized scanners and other recent technological advances made it possible.
Some newspapers--the Orange County Register perhaps foremost among them--have made special efforts to buy and master the latest and best color equipment, figuring that good color (and an attractive design) would be the best way to distinguish itself from its major competitor (in the Register's case, the Los Angeles Times).
Despite recent improvements, large newspapers like the L.A. Times still have trouble sometimes with the quality of their color, in part because they don't make the same all-out commitment to color, preferring to concentrate their energies and resources on news coverage, and in part because they print so many papers every night that they have to run their presses too fast to be able to take full advantage of modern technology. (The faster a press runs, the poorer the quality of reproduction.)
Like most other papers, the L.A. Times has used color first (and most often) in feature sections printed in advance--food and travel, for example--and in sports, where the action best lends itself to exciting color photography.
Editors Hold Back
Many editors are more reluctant about using color--and other new design elements--in their news sections (and, especially, on the front page) for fear of making their papers appear frivolous rather than authoritative.
On occasion, the L.A. Times has experimented with color on its front page, though, and the paper will continue those experiments.
"Color on the news pages of all newspapers is inevitable," says William F. Thomas, editor of The Times. "But until color photos can be used with the same facility as can the present black-and-white, and until we can be confident of its quality, I think it would be a mistake for a serious newspaper to commit to it on a regular basis. (If you do) . . . you are forced to build your front page--and your public image--around whatever color photographs are available, whether or not they meet the test of news or reader values.
"To me, that's a distortion of priorities."
Other editors agree. In fact, that's exactly the reason the New York Times uses no color at all (except in its Sunday magazine and other special magazine sections).
But some newspapers--the Register, the Seattle Times, and the St. Petersburg Times among them--consistently produce excellent color, and if it isn't perfect, magazine-quality color, well, the editors think the benefits are well worth the compromise.
James D. Squires, editor of the Chicago Tribune, says that when he became editor of the paper in 1981, the Tribune and the rival Sun-Times were "locked in a pretty good struggle and had been for a long, long time."
"That struggle ended, for all intents and purposes," Squires says, "when we brought up our color printing plant (in late 1982). Our image in Chicago had been that We were dull and staid, but we changed our image with a color front page and very exciting sports pictures in color. . . ."
The addition of color--combined with a redesign of the paper--"called attention to the fact that the Tribune was changing," Squires says, and readers (and advertisers) responded enthusiastically.
Widening the Gap
In the three years since the Tribune added color, its daily circulation lead over the Sun-Times has increased 30% and its share of the display advertising dollar has increased 74%, according to figures provided by the Tribune.
Color and redesign alone do not account for the Tribune's growing competitive edge in Chicago, of course; the historic (and changing) roles of the two papers were critical factors, too. But the new look of the Tribune has clearly contributed significantly to its growing success.
Squires first learned about the advantages (and the dangers) of color when he was editor of the Orlando, Fla., Sentinel for four years before taking over at the Tribune.