Personality Of A Journal

by Nirmaldasan

A tree is known by its fruits; a journal, by design and content. Let us dwell on each of these and discover the elements that strengthen or weaken the personality of a journal.

Design

A journal is designed with an eye on target audience. A good design appeals to the reader's eyes. And when a buyer picks up a magazine or a newspaper from a stall, the quality of the paper appeals to his/her touch.

We will consider the touch aspect first. Suppose the journal is printed on a fine quality paper that leaves a pleasant feel on the hands. What next? Is the journal handy? Yes, a designer takes the dimensions into consideration. Newspapers may either be broadsheets (normal size like that of The Hindu) or tabloids (half the normal size), and magazines come in varied sizes. But all of them are handy.

So much for size. What about shape? Have you heard of a circular magazine? No, definitely not! Designers have even said `no' to squares. The one thing that all journals have in common is the shape -- they are all rectangular. And that too the vertical dimension being longer than the horizontal. Perhaps this is what makes a journal really handy.

The size and shape also appeal to the sight aspect. Once the dimensions are fixed, the question of column-width comes into focus. Broadsheets are either divided into six or eight columns. The width of the columns, the space between them and the margins are all determined. The page is now ready to receive the printed word.

The word must be set in an appropriate type. The selection of type is of utmost importance. Separate type families are chosen for headlines and body text to provide the needed contrast. The study of type is called typography. This is beyond the scope of this chapter. However, in passing, it is enough to note that type is identified by family, font, width, weight and posture.

The chosen format and type families are adhered to in edition after edition. They are changed only when a change in the personality of the journal is desired.

Of equal significance is the way text is presented on a page. And visuals too. The importance of graphics and photographs can never be over-emphasised. Even white space can be put to good use. These provide what is called visual relief in page make-up parlance.

The frontpage defines the personality of a newspaper; the cover, that of a magazine. Colour, visuals, catchy headlines and blurbs call the shots. But more important than these is the nameplate.

A journal is always identified by its nameplate. In newspapers the nameplate, mistakenly called masthead, is flanked by earpanels. Some newspapers have a floating flag. It may either be centred, set flush left or flush right. In magazines, we have the overlap nameplate. Either the nameplate partly overlaps a visual or is overlapped by one.

But if you can identify a journal without its nameplate, it only speaks volumes about the journal's strong personality.

Of the two aspects of a journal's personality, content is of more importance than design. We have considered design in all its phases; now, we move over to content.

Content

Nobody buys a journal for design but for content. This is not to say that design should be sacrificed at the altar of content. A reader intuitively recognises a good design and is led to believe that the content must also be good.

Content has two dimensions -- formal and ethical. It is easier to tackle the first of these. By formal content, we mean those elements of a text that need not impinge on meaning; namely, grammar and style.

Every journal is entitled to a style of its own. You may have noticed that most journals dispense with the articles in the headlines. Words like police and team are treated as singular by some and plural by others. But what is important is uniformity. Readers find it easy to identify themselves with a journal that has a consistent style. Even a wrong spelling, say cigaret (which Bernard Shaw used), is condoned if it is part of a journal's stylebook.

Errors in grammar, chiefly those of tense, and verbiage can confound the personality of a journal. A writer dashing off a story to meet the deadline is more or less prone to mistakes. It is the editor's job to watch out for tautologies and proximity errors.

Carelessness can lead to other mistakes. There is the case of the incomplete story. While aligning a story in a three-column grid, a part of the paragraph or sentence may be inadvertently left out. And then there is the case of the wrong caption. There may appear a picture of the President with the Prime Minister -- the caption reading "Two apes in a zoo..."

Who is to blame? The editor, of course!

Any discussion on personality would invariably lead to a discussion of ethics. In this case, ethical content. It is eventually this that strengthens, nay defines, the personality of a journal.

Technical journals may not have any problem on this front. But even their editors are expected to act in good faith. Imagine a technical paper authored by X appearing under the name of Y. This is just an instance of unethical journalism.

In newspapers and magazines the problem is more pronounced. The image of a leading daily takes a beating whenever it breaks a sensational story only to put up a corrigendum the following day. What is at stake is the credibility of the journal.

Another error, this time in the other extreme, is to either downplay or suppress facts. It takes just a matter of time for the reader to find out the truth. It is the journal that suffers in the long run.

So what is the lesson? Never sensationalise or downplay a story. But does this mean facts can be published as facts? No. It can sometimes be unethical to publish facts. It has been, for instance, an established convention to protect the identity of a rape victim.

Certain facts a reader ought to know, and the rest he/she need not know. An editor must listen to the dictates of conscience and act in good faith. This rule also applies to the choice of photographs.

Most visuals, especially those depicting sex and violence, are in bad taste. They must be kept out at all cost.

But will the editor listen? It is ultimately the personality of the editor that manifests itself as the personality of the journal.

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