What format helps readers most in obtaining information from their daily paper?
Forty-four years ago Ralph Ingersoll thought he had the answer. After years as an executive of Fortune, the New Yorker and Life magazines, he launched a New York City tabloid, PM, with no advertisements, much capsulized news, big pictures and compartmentalization of the content. Some reacted by tabbing it really a news magazine, rather than a daily newspaper; others saluted it as a breakthrough in serving up the news in an organized, interesting and efficient way.
While PM lasted only eight years, "many of Ingersoll's (and PM's) innovations have been adopted as everyday features in today's newspaper -- especially in USA Today," according to Roy Hoopes, writing in the December Washington Journalism Review. After PM, Ingersoll formed a firm which owns 24 daily and about 50 weekly papers. Now 84, he retired two years ago and his son, Ralph II, heads the company.
The Ingersoll name was back in the news last week when the firm made an offer of about $123 million for the Des Moines Register and Tribune Co.
American papers have been faced with the unending problem of readers who need and seek information of many kinds and yet have limited time to digest it. One technique which has been growing in popularity is a daily index of the news or a news summary column "for a quick read," as USA Today puts it. The theory is that readers in a hurry will spot items of interest and skip other pages.
Another technique is the departmentalization of news, and even sectioning it off in handy segments. Thus many papers, The Post included, have separate sections for sports, business, local coverage, world news and weekly sections for science, home, food, travel and the like.
While this helps some readers, there is a down side for those whose interests cross the departmental turfs. Let us look at consumer news, which PM pioneered. In The Post, in addition to a weekly column in the Metro section, last week the Washington Business section carried an informative look at "Car Dealer Markups," interesting to car dealers -- and potential car-buyers. Warren Brown and Sari Horwitz removed a lot of mystery from the pricing add-ons by dealers. But consumers do not always dip into the business section.
Last Wednesday The Post business section featured an article warning parents about toy hazards in children's gifts. Sari Horwitz covered a "show and tell" program developed by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. But again the nagging question, "Did most parents see it?"
On Friday Caroline E. Mayer reported that "Two New Firms Fuel Drugstore War," a story important to the retailing community, but her table comparing prices at three stores would be helpful to consumers who buy toothpaste, shampoo or toilet paper, and that, I suspect, means all of us.
What's the answer? My view is that consumer news should be lifted out of the business corridor and given space in the general news sections of the paper. Businessmen are more likely to read those sections than consumers are to read the business section. Readers of this column may remember a similar suggestion last July about placement of consumer product recall information.
There are other display problems, too. Last Wednesday, The Post led the paper with a lengthy report by Spencer Rich that "Civil Servants Face Possible Revamping of Retirement Plan." The story sent shudders through the federal establishment, Washington's biggest industry, and the content was read, analyzed and even parsed by many.
As it happens, many of the principal thrusts of the story were signaled earlier by Mike Causey in his Federal Diary column on page two of the Metro section. Query whether these early signs did not deserve front page coverage, too.
While there is much to be said for compartmentalization of news, there is a related responsibility to be on the lookout for news that bursts beyond the confines of usual readership. This is what readers look to alert editors for.