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The Ombudsman

John A. Hawkinson


Credit: COURTESY THE HARVARD CRIMSON

The HARVARD CRIMSON

The Harvard Crimson’s redesigned front page debuted Jan. 12, 2004. It shows interior content in four ways: inside story teasers, section teasers, inside coverage boxes, and an index box.

In this column

* In this column, page 5
* Ombudserratum, page 5
* PDFs of issues, page 5
* Crime and Dong Mun, page 6
* Stories buried deep inside, page 6

Ombudserratum

My column in last week’s issue (Jan. 14) claimed three letters had not been published, and listed them. The second listing, “a response to the Nov. 21 complaint about the Virgin Mobile ad,” was wrong -- that letter was indeed printed, in issue 59 (Nov. 25), under the title “Gender Bias.” The author was Dave Lahr G.

(It would be funny to claim I missed the publication of the letter because there is no HTML version on the Web, but that’s not the reason.)

PDFs of issues

Last week, I mentioned some issues were available in PDF form. Unfortunately, when the HTML versions of issues have gone up, the PDF versions have mostly disappeared. They are still online at http://www-tech.mit.edu/V123/PDF (I was able to find this by guessing /V123 and choosing PDF from the directory listing). I’ve asked the technology department why that’s not linked to from anywhere useful, but they have not responded.

It’s somewhat sobering to think that the question of PDFs has generated the most e-mail from readers on a single topic in my seven months as Ombudsman: four people sent me mail (one is a staff photographer, not just a reader). All four were in favor of PDFs, to the exclusion of the HTML version. Whoa! (I would have expected the peak of communication to me to be over a journalistic issue, not a technical one.)

Two of the four independently suggested that we should have thumbnail images of the front page available, and one suggested that PDFs of the individual articles should be available as well.

The arguments in favor seem to be that PDFs:

* are prettier than HTML;

* accurately reflects the layout of the newspaper (archival value);

* do not omit tables, infographics, or special formatting;

* can go up on the Web faster than the HTML versions.

I haven’t seen any arguments against providing both formats, though PDFs of the entire paper may be difficult to provide when some material in the printed edition is not licensed for online distribution.

Crime and Dong Mun

I was pretty pleased with the news content in last week’s issue. Outgoing photography editor Jonathan Wang wrote a good news story on crime. In particular, I was pleased that he talked to MIT Police Chief John DiFava and got useful quotations, especially compared with past police coverage.

For example, in the recent articles about missing MIT student Daniel “Dong” S. Mun ’05, I thought the news department didn’t do a good job of interviewing the MIT police. The original Dec. 9 article [“Student Missing Since Friday”] said the MIT police “could provide no update,” and the followup Jan. 7 article [“MIT Student Remains Missing”] said Deputy Chief John Driscoll “referred questions about the investigation to [MIT spokesman Arthur L.] Jones.” In both cases, I thought a comment from DiFava would have helped, but the news department didn’t seem to follow through.

If you’re wondering what has happened to Mun, you’re not the only one. The Jan. 7 article quotes Jones saying “Everything is ongoing” and says that he says the search “includes periodically checking the river and its banks.” What does “periodically” mean? The next paragraph says Dean Robert M. Randolph “thinks the checks will be done weekly,” which is decidedly uncertain. Is there really any hope at all?

I was also puzzled by the quote from Randolph in the Dec. 17 article in The Boston Globe [“Friends, police search for missing MIT student,” by Marcella Bombardieri]: “There are indications he could have harmed himself.” That seemed pretty alarming, especially when coupled with initial rumors from a widely circulated Dec. 6 e-mail that “He was pretty drunk when he left the house.” (I asked the author of that e-mail on Monday, and he said he wasn’t sure it was true but wrote that “so people would take it more seriously,” and that he didn’t remember where the information came from.)

The Jan 7. article says that when Randolph was “asked about his comment” by the Globe, that “he said that it was not clear what Mun might have done, and that he would not discuss the matter in more detail for privacy reasons.”

I asked Randolph to resolve the confusion, and he said (referring to Mun), “He sent a message to his family indicating he was going to do something, but it’s not clear what in fact he was going to do. Subsequent information has not made it any clearer.”

Stories buried deep inside the last issue

Pages 13 and 14 reprinted two articles from The Boston Globe about MIT. Looking at them, you might think that they were run there just to fill space, but actually they ran because the interim IAP news director Keith J. Winstein felt they were relevant.

The Tech doesn’t do a good job of telling readers about stories that are buried deep inside the paper, and should improve. The World & Nation, Opinion, Fun, and Sports sections all appear in distinctive places and can easily be found. The news articles on the front page are easy to find. Other content does not have it so easy.

The remaining news, features, and arts articles have to vie for a reference in one of the three positions at the bottom of the front page (called “inside boxes”), one of which is reserved for comics (why bother?). That’s great if there are only two such articles, but problematic otherwise.

In last week’s issue, the left inside box led to one of three arts stories (all on the same spread), and the right led to the sports section. There was no front page mention of the two Globe stories, and I suspect many Tech readers missed them.

Perhaps The Tech needs to rethink its inside boxes. On Jan. 12, The Harvard Crimson launched their redesign. According to the article, the Crimson has: “three inside story teasers above the masthead [to] direct readers’ attention to important or interesting stories,” “section teasers on the front page [to] provide information about inside sections and their major stories,” “inside coverage boxes [to] alert readers to related coverage elsewhere within the paper,” and “an improved index box ... across the bottom of the page” (see “Crimson Goes Color” by Zachary M. Seward, http://www.thecrimson.com/article.aspx?ref=357029).

Let’s take a page from the Crimson and add more kinds of inside boxes.

The Tech’s Ombudsman welcomes your feedback, to ombudsman@the-tech.mit.edu. His opinions are his own.