Half a Page and a Whole Lot of Ire

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, May 20, 2007

Half pages in The Post's Sunday Source, Health and Home sections are a growing irritant with readers.

A steady chorus complains every week, and as the use of half pages grows, so do complaints. Readers find those flapping half pages maddeningly hard to read on the Metro, at a desk or table, or even sitting in a chair. Just listen:

Patricia Vacca of Silver Spring: "It is hard to read the vertical half page (nothing to hold onto!) and hard to change from page to page in the section. In the big scheme of things this is just a minor irritant, but you and others have wondered why readership and subscriptions are down. Minor annoyances may play a role."

Eric Hill of Reston: "Those new half-pages the WPost is now using: ugh, what a pain. There's probably some get-you-to-read-it theory behind them, but please, find a way to fill two pages, or cut back."

J. Scott Monier of Alexandria: "To hold or fold the half-width page, or turn it, without putting the paper down or going through contortions, would require a third hand, something few of us come equipped with. Please make them stop."

Judith Bowie of Walkersville, Md.: "At a time when newspapers are complaining about loss of readership, I would think The Post would want to do everything it could to make it easier, not harder, to read the paper. I would rather you raise my rates and put back the full page(s)."

Roberta Poling of Columbia: "I know it saves a little newsprint, but I get so annoyed every time I see one of the half pages. I don't think it can be saving enough to make it worth the wrath of Post readers."

Poling is right: Half pages save newsprint, and that means money. Home, Health and the Sunday Source are "zoned" for advertising between editions that go to different parts of the area, so there may be more ads in one zone than in another. Before half pages, space not used was filled with "house ads" -- the newspaper's own ads, which bring in no revenue.

Newspapers usually can expand only by at least two pages, so the half sheet gives flexibility. Debra Leithauser, editor of the Sunday Source, knows that some readers are frustrated by the half pages, but she says that "the trade-off of more content and a better-balanced section is worth it."

Leithauser, Home editor Belle Elving and Health editor Frances Stead Sellers also use the half pages to package stories and information that can be clipped and saved, such as how to choose a light bulb, in the Home section, or an explanation of Lyme disease, in Health.

Top editors agreed to half pages on a trial basis. Managing Editor Phil Bennett said, "We've been experimenting with the half pages as a way of maintaining the amount of space we're devoting to journalism in these sections when the amount of advertising fluctuates. In the past, we've filled any holes on pages with house ads -- a wasteful approach that doesn't serve readers or our economics. We're attentive to readers' views of these pages and are still looking for ways to make them be more useful and less weird."

Katharine Weymouth, vice president of advertising, is sympathetic. "I completely understand readers' frustration with these new half-sheet pages; in fact I share them as a reader," she said. "Paper is one of the costliest aspects of putting the newspaper out. And as newspapers seek to cut costs in order to continue to invest in the content we produce, using half pages when we don't have stories or ads to fill them seemed like one of the easier things we could do. That said, we will keep an eye on how readers feel about them and will reconsider if it is pushing our readers away."

Publisher Bo Jones said that he will decide whether to keep them after he sees new reader research, which will be finished in a few weeks.

Half pages save money. Ads on section fronts make money. The latter are new in the past few weeks and have drawn only one complaint -- from Paul Kirby of Silver Spring. "As a lifelong reader of The Washington Post and a journalist, I was disappointed . . . that about 20 percent of the front page of the Post's Business section was devoted to an advertisement rather than editorial content. I realize that a number of other newspapers -- including USA Today -- have run ads on their section fronts for quite a while, but I was always pleased that The Post had resisted the urge to sacrifice editorial quality for short-term profit. . . . I urge you to reconsider your decision . . . great newspapers like The Post shouldn't take any such actions that compromise their editorial quality."

Jones replied to Kirby, noting that the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal are running section-front ads. "We held off on doing them for some time for reasons you expressed. At the end of the day, I made the call to go ahead and take these ads with their premium revenue. As you note, newspapers these days are under growing pressure to find new revenue streams in order to support the news gathering and maintain the best possible quality for readers." Jones said that the space is not lost to news but added elsewhere "so there was no net loss to readers. In the overall long-term tradeoff, I don't think readers will be confused or disadvantaged except for the aesthetics."

As an editor who fought section-front ads, I have to reluctantly say that the revenue they bring in for news gathering is worth the trade-off. But the half pages drive me nuts.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.

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