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All The Color That's Fit to Print

Saul Blumenthal

There is a war going on in New York City now, and it's being fought over four letters - C, M, Y, K. For those not involved in printing, that's cyan, magenta, yellow, and black, the colors that go into full-color printing. In a matter of one week, three New York newspapers have significantly changed their looks. Newsday has increased its use of color in its sections, the Daily News has started full-color printing on the front page, and, beginning this past Monday, The New York Times started full-color printing in the sports and arts sections of its weekday editions.

Yes, you read that correctly. The Times, the "old gray lady," has finally given in to the trend. For at least two years, the Times has been printing color in its extra Sunday sections - travel, arts, and book review - but it has now taken the plunge into the world of everyday full-color printing. Color photos will arrive on page one within a month. While these changes will probably strike people as surprising at first, most probably won't think much of the changes after the initial shock - that is, as long as the changes don't raise the paper's price.

But there's a good deal of conservatism and adherence to tradition among some readers of the Times, and many of those readers don't think the change is such a good idea. The Times' World Wide Web site has an electronic forum on color, and the forum has generated more than 30 messages in just the past two weeks. "Today's newspaper is a travesty USA Today, move over, you've got competition for gratuitous use of color photos," was one reader's reaction after seeing Monday's paper.

Most of the responses weren't so extreme, but it's worthwhile to look at why some people think that way. In the world of newspapers, there seem to be two types: "serious" broadsheets like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal, and the "tabloids," like Newsday and The New York Post. Besides the obvious difference in the sizes of the two types of papers, most readers have different expectations of them and turn to them for different reasons. People read the Journal for hard-core financial news and the conservative opinion pages; they turn to Newsday for the latest Hollywood gossip and the comics and sports.

And, more often than not, readers have turned to papers like Newsday for full-color photographs. For various reasons, the tabloids seem to have embraced full-color printing faster than the more traditional papers. Indeed, Newsday has had color front pages for more than a decade.

The concerns over the introduction of color into the Times are related more to the standards people associate with color than the actual colored ink itself. The common theme in many of the postings to the online forum is that The New York Times will soon become USA Today - with all the journalistic ideals people ascribe to to USA Today. Color is pretty. People like color. Color sells. So who cares about the quality of the writing?

I don't believe that The New York Times is going to follow this route. Certainly the top officials at the paper have tried to assuage all these concerns. "This is more an exercise in making the report we have more accessible. It will be a better-organized, easier-to-read paper," said the paper's executive editor.

In fact, those people who view the paper as a bastion of conservatism and tradition may be in for a little surprise. A look at the paper over the last year will show that the paper has often been very creative in its layout and design, especially in its feature sections and in illustrations and graphics. If the Times were indeed such a traditional paper, I don't think it would be using '90s grunge typefaces in its subscription advertisements, which it has recently.

The move to color is just another step in the evolution of the paper. New digital technology has made full-color printing easier and more economical than ever, and I'm sure the financial gains of color advertisements didn't escape the paper's top executives. More than ever, the paper is trying to compete in a national marketplace, with its new Washington and New England regional editions. The fact is that newspapers are businesses. The move to color printing, and the associated redesign of some of the inside sections, is as much a business decision as a journalistic one. It's no surprise then that three of the four major New York papers have made major changes.

These days, newspapers not only face competition from each other but also from 24-hour cable news channels, web sites that are updated every five minutes, and other manifestations of the multimedia information age. With studies showing fewer and fewer young people are reading newspapers on a regular basis, papers have been forced to re-examine their focus and purpose. One can understand why the Times' publisher referred to the changes an opportunity to "redesign this paper for a new generation of readers and advertisers."

Despite the conventional wisdom that print media is dead, these are exciting times for newspapers. Indeed, The Tech has not escaped the color wave, with more and more full-color issues. When used in moderation, full color in The New York Times has the potential to make all the news that's fit to print a little more complete.