Readers care a lot about the content of The Kansas City Star. But they also often contact me with their thoughts about how that content is presented on the printed page.
Much of that feedback, while valuable, is highly personal. Some people wish every page could have full color, while others long for the days before newspaper presses even had that ability.
Often readers will compliment section fronts that feature artistic and intricate illustrations, but some others wish page designers would do away with big photos and graphics altogether.
But there is one thing that many people who have contacted me in recent months can agree about: The Star’s typesetting system isn’t always very smart when it comes to hyphenating words that are too long to fit on a single line.
Readers have been collecting many examples of words that have broken in some extremely odd places: Whe-never. Be-droom. Patte-rned. Or my favorite: re-ach.
What’s going on here? Have the paper’s copy editors and page designers invented their own rules?
The answer is that about a year ago, The Star installed a major update of its computer publishing system, which allows everyone in the newsroom — reporters, editors, photographers and artists — to work on the same content simultaneously, for both the print and online worlds.
That computer system uses its own word processor, and it’s a fairly new piece of programming. And one of the things it doesn’t do well is knowing where to break words between lines.
Most copy editing is done on a screen that doesn’t show the text as it will appear on the page, though editors do also look at printed proofs before everything is sent to the presses. They can manually force the system not to break words in the wrong place if they spot them, but obviously some slip through.
Readers catch lots of other mechanical issues, such as the Jan. 21 column by Charles Krauthammer in the Opinion section. That day, the far right side of the last column of type was cut off by a character or so.
I consulted with editors in that department, who went back and checked the paper proofs generated before printing, and everything was OK there. So someone must have accidentally nudged the invisible “box” containing the text in the page design program after the page was proofed, and then re-saved the file.
That’s a regrettable type of mistake — and it’s also very difficult to identify before papers start rolling off the presses. The error was fixed at some point, because not all versions of the page were cut off.
The computer system has other everyday quirks. One of the main typefaces used for briefs and “refer” pointers on section fronts is set so that the numeral 1 prints too closely to other characters. Since this typeface doesn’t use serifs — the little lines at the top and bottom of strokes in many characters — that problem can make certain bits of text difficult to read. It’s especially bad when several 1s are strung together.
Newspaper design is an idiosyncratic thing, with its traditional narrow columns and page designs that change every day, sometimes significantly. Most of these niggling problems can (and should) be addressed in a system-wide tweak.
And while they’re annoying, they can also sometimes interfere with the paper’s primary mission: to convey information clearly.