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The Electronic Broadsheet


The layout of a newspaper is designed to attract readership and to optimize the newspaper's effectiveness in presenting information. Rules and conventions have evolved over the years and almost all western newspapers share well-established layout principles. The large screen allows for the use of newspaper layout techniques on a computer display.

9.1 Automating the Layout Process

Newspaper layout was one of the first newspaper processes automated with the help of computers. The application is obvious and the market is large. The problem is reasonably constrained; the program is given a set of news articles and advertisements. Advertisements are placed according to one set of rules, while news articles are placed in the remaining space (the "newshole") according to another set of rules. Since The Electronic Broadsheet does not contain advertisements, I do not discuss them.

Without the ads the problem is surprisingly similar to the computer game Tetris; blocks are to be placed to minimize white space.

Through grants from the American Newspaper Publishers Association, J F Reintjes of MIT and his students have done a substantial amount of work on automating newspaper layout. Their research focuses on assisting newspaper personnel in the layout process rather than automating the entire process:

"At the other extreme, a fully automated layout system is conceivable where layouts would be created according to pre-conceived algorithms. Ideally, such a system would be the fastest and most efficient approach; however, we believe the layout process is too complex and day-to-day conditions are too varied to permit the design of an algorithm that can achieve acceptable layouts consistently and cost-effectively." [Reintjes et al. 77]

9.2 Templates

When trying to automate newspaper page layout there are two basic approaches; algorithms and templates. Robert Polansky [Polansky 74] describes a sequential layout algorithm that develops a page one item at a time. A rectangular story envelope is constructed using a desired height-to-width ratio and the envelope is placed at a boundary of the remaining newshole. The algorithm then shifts the envelope and/or modifies its shape to eliminate any overlap with items previously positioned on the page. The process is repeated until all items assigned to the page are placed. The algorithm shows satisfactory results when the number of articles is low, but is of limited use when placing the last items on a page. Again, think of Tetris!

Kan [Kan 77] gives the layout process more information about the desired page design by introducing templates. Templates are dummy pages that have been designed with the overall page layout in mind. A library containing all allowed templates for a newspaper page would number between 100.000 and 1.000.000 entries. The estimate is the product of the number of different possible layout styles, ad dummies, story and picture sizes, and story and picture counts. Although is possible to store and process this amount of information, collecting the data in the first place would require a substantial amount of work.

By abstracting templates to contain geometrical data only, Kan reduced the number of templates to a few hundred. The new templates specify no metric data and each template can generate many different page layouts.

DeTreville [DeTreville 78] defines a template grammar that describes the set of legal templates. The purpose of the grammar is to outlaw templates that should be avoided. The descriptive grammar consists of a small set of rules, e.g., "The shape of a template must never become larger as one scans from top to bottom." A large number of templates are in the set of legal designs, from which the template to be used is selected in a semi-random way.

9.3 The Layout of the Electronic Broadsheet

While the electronic newspaper borrows many elements from the newspaper metaphor, including the tiled layout, the process of laying out the pages is very different. Paper-based newspapers are issued in discrete editions, but the Electronic Broadsheet continuously receives articles. Accordingly, old or unimportant articles have to be removed and this complicates the shape of the newshole. It's a dynamic page and not your average Tetris game!

Unless news articles are constantly reformatted it is impossible to keep a dynamic page optimized with regard to open space. One story will be taken down and the new article will not cover the hole unless it is reformatted with the new space in mind. Doing so would delay the presentation, and the result could look awkward. But, virtual news space is cheap and since one white block will not multiply into large areas of white paper the problem is not critical.

9.3.1 The Layout in the Sections

As described in chapter 5, The Electronic Broadsheet has one front page and several section pages. The layout in the section follows traditional layout rules and tiles the articles. Each page is laid out in a grid with a 5x8 resolution, and space is allocated as stories come in. The Electronic Broadsheet will search the grid for all possible positions. If more than one is found, it will use some simple rules to pick the final destination. The rules are:

* if the priority of the article is high, it will try to get a position in the upper part of the page

* if it's a one-column article it should go to one of the edges

* there should be a horizontal balance of articles

The layout program never moves an article after it has been placed since that could interfere with news reading. However, there are situations where one would want to move articles to make room for the new story. E.g., if a high priority article comes in and there is only room at the bottom of the page, it would be better to move the top articles down instead of placing the new article at the bottom, which is where it goes now.

9.3.2 Recycling Real Estate

If there is no free room for the incoming article, the system will search through the articles already on the page to see if any of them can give way for new news. A map of all articles with priorities higher than the incoming article is made. If the new article can fit on the map without covering any of the marked slots, any current article covering the same space is discarded. See chapter 10 for a description of how an article is eliminated.

9.3.3 The Layout of the Front Page

The traditional newspaper front page displays only the first part of the articles and make the reader jump to an inside page to continue the story. This has been shown to lose readers; one out of five in one study [Nelson 68] . Ideally, the whole story should be displayed to avoid jumps, but real estate on the front page is expensive and there is not enough room to show articles in full unless the number of front page stories is severely limited .

A possible solution is to format two versions of the article; one intended for the front page and one for the section page. This approach would require more processing power, and deciding how much of the article to put on each page is not trivial. Another approach is to format the whole article, but only display parts of it and let the user scroll through the content. Unfortunately, the performance of the current system is not adequate to handle the increased burden of scrolling; it is already burdened by the X11 server and a formatting process running simultaneously. Also, both of the above solutions would hide parts of the article for the user while reading. As long as it's possible to fit the article on a page, I believe it should be shown in full.

Three different ideas of how the front page should look crystallized during the course of the project:

* The traditional: The newspaper front page is a highly successful channel of communication and should be transferred intact onto the screen. The most important articles are displayed with a tiled layout. This approach wastes screen space in a dynamic environment where articles come and go, but it is the most organized. Also, it is consistent with the layout in the sections.

* The volcano: The front page displays all articles in full with overlapping windows. Important stories float to the top of the stack, less important articles may be partly visible, while the articles with the least priority are totally overlapped. The page contains a lot of information and looks chaotic at times.

By clicking in a partially visible article, it will float to the top. This alternative quickly fills the front page with a segmented compound of articles. It is both serendipitous and chaotic.

* The headlines: As many articles as possible are stacked with the headline visible. By clicking and holding down the mouse button, a user can temporarily bring an article to the top of the stack. This approach offers a structured interface to a lot of data.

People feel strongly about front page design and opinions are diverse. The three alternatives all have their merits and some users might want to use them all.

9.3.4 Nameplates & Section Heads

To improve the look of the pages they all carry a nameplate on top. The nameplate identifies the front page as a part of the Newspace project while the section pages are labeled accordingly. Colors have been used indiscriminately. Appendix B shows some nameplate designs.

9.1 - Automating the Layout Process
9.2 - Templates
9.3 - The Layout of the Electronic Broadsheet
9.3.1 - The Layout in the Sections
9.3.2 - Recycling Real Estate
9.3.3 - The Layout of the Front Page
9.3.4 - Nameplates & Section Heads

The Electronic Broadsheet - 30 JUN 95
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