FACING stagnant circulation and new computerized production technology, many American newspapers are trying to create more ``reader friendly'' formats. The Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and the Boston Herald are among the large metropolitan dailies that have undergone important design changes in the last few months. Over the past several years, the New York Times has been gradually introducing changes in its back sections and running more feature stories on Page 1, and it is developing a color printing ability. The Wall Street Journal last year introduced a new third section. The Christian Science Monitor moved to a full-color format last January.
Bill Woestendiek, director of the University of Southern California's school of journalism, sees two reasons for the changes: ``One is to satisfy readers' desire, or perceived desire, to get a quick fix on the news. The other is to make the paper look more lively.''
``Newspapers are looking for a way to serve the reader better,'' says Ray Chattman, executive director of the Society of Newspaper Design. ``They are making the paper easier to handle - helping the readers to read, process information, and pick what they want to read off the page faster.''
This can be done in several ways, Mr. Chattman explains. ``It can be through graphics explaining the news or break-out boxes on issues, rather than making the reader go through 10 to 15 inches of copy like before. Or it can be through shorter, better-written stories and more readable, plain-English headlines.''
Newspapers are taking varying approaches to making their product more readable.
At the Los Angeles Times, for example, the keyword was ``access,'' or the organization of the paper.
``We get complaints from readers about the size and bulk'' of the paper, says Terry Schwadron, assistant managing editor of the Times and head of the team that led the redesign effort. The paper is ``so big that some readers find it intimidating.''
So the publishers introduced some ``road maps'' to help readers find their way around. New elements include a highlights column on the front page of each section and a news-summary-cum-index for the whole paper on Page 2.
At the Boston Globe, ``readability'' meant a slightly larger typeface, different headline type, more use of white space, and more consistency in the layout of different sections of the paper.
``We felt it was a time to bring more clarity to the paper, to have more consistency and a more modern look,'' editor John Driscoll said in a Globe article.
The new emphasis on readability, many experts say, is at least partly due to the influence of Gannett Company, Inc.'s USA Today. That paper operates from an assumption that readers growing up in a television age are used to color images, very short, concise articles, and lots of graphics. While most important newspapers reject USA Today's abbreviated approach to news, they have taken to heart many of that paper's graphics and color innovations.
Newspapers are using more color to attract younger readers, says Mario Garcia, director for graphics design at the Pointer Institute for Media Studies in St. Petersburg, Fla.
``Seventy-seven percent of newspaper readers can't remember when there was no televsion. Magazines and paperback books are more colorful. How can this other traditional medium not catch up?'' he asks.
The effort to catch up has been helped by advances in computer-graphics technology tailored for print publishing. This has enabled newspapers to produce increasingly sophisticated maps, charts, and graphs.
Ben Bagdikian, a journalism expert at the University of California at Berkeley, says the USA Today approach is ``nonsense.'' ``Readers look to newspapers for information that's not available on television,'' he says. ``If design changes make it easier for readers to find what they want, that's good. But in too many places color and graphics become central. No paper has ever been saved by graphic design.''
But just because some newspapers have adopted part of the USA Today approach ``doesn't mean they are USA Today,'' Mr. Woestendiek says. ``The Los Angeles Times still has both long and short articles.''
While some readers like detailed reports, others don't have time for them, Woestendiek says. ``The Times is trying to satisfy both types of reader. I don't see that as a bad thing.''
Jonathan Klarfeld, a journalism professor at Boston University, says the best reason for a redesign is ``to make the paper work better. The people considering redesigns should take a real good look at whether it's worth the time and money.''
He says some newspapers redesign just because everyone else does.
Ironically, efforts to make a paper more reader friendly often upset many subscribers. The Globe, Monitor, and Los Angeles Times all received many letters from readers who don't like what has happened to what they regard as an old friend.