Wednesday, March 9, 2016

A Study of Layout Themes in Business Sections of Indian Newspapers

By Akshaya Krishnaswamy

This blog post aims to discuss about layout design followed by business columns in daily newspapers and seeks to provide an insight into how the design has evolved over the years. This post also intends to propose a solution for the all the shortcomings identified from the case study conducted for this purpose.

Fig 1: Short article published in 'The Hindu' business section dated 2004
Have you ever noticed the boring layouts that almost all of the daily newspapers employ for business columns? Do you find it bland and unreadable? It is easy to conclude that any column that carries a business article or news is by default a dry read for many news readers and it is entirely possible that you are one of the many readers out there, who avoids or ignores the business columns simply because it is not your area of interest. It is completely agreed that a large proportion of newspaper readers are mostly driven towards reading just certain sections that include the front page with its major headlines, as well as city news, entertainment and sports. Only a small portion of the readers happen to follow the news carried by the    business sections of the newspaper.

While it is not surprising to note that business sections do not attract many readers, it is also important to question whether the design layout followed by these columns is a reason for driving people away from enjoying a read. This question arises mainly because such columns vary significantly from the other sections.

The rest of this blog post will tough upon the various factors that influence the editors, that impact the readers and the overall business related literacy, news readers have.
 Some of the questions that this article aims to address include,
  1. Why do business columns across varied newspapers follow the same design layout that is devoid of picture elements and interesting graphics?
  2. Are these design layouts selected to reflect a serious orientation towards the content, and has this stigmatized the content to a considerable extent?
  3. Do these insipid layouts significantly contribute towards readers not reading particular content? Are business columns layout intimidating to readers and hence drive them away from reading
  4. Why haven't the print news media experimented with this layout?
  5. What do readers feel about the content vs layout part of business columns?

Fig 1: Short article carried in the business section of ‘The Hindu’ business section dated 2015

Generally any newspaper carries out periodic assessment of layouts in order to gauge the readers' interest towards reading a particular piece in a newspaper. Here The Hindu, a widely circulated national Newspaper, noted for elite as well as well-read readers in India is noted for periodically experimenting with varied layouts. This is done to explore a readers' intent to read or not read a content depends upon the layout or its presentation. This pattern of periodic assessment is usually followed by newspapers such as The Times of India, Hindustan Times, Deccan Chronicle (other widely circulated newspapers in India) and so on. A new layout created for articles and the readers comfort with or reaction to the new design is recorded, based on which further enhancements are made.

Usually the periodic assessment is done for the following reasons:
1. To break away from the monotonous design layout
2. To give a refreshing layout for the newspaper by revamp the layouts, not entirely but on a small scale

For the purpose of this article, an observation was made into the design layouts of business columns in newspapers and it was surprising to note that the layout has been quite the same for many newspapers for many years. Here the papers taken into consideration were The Hindu and Deccan Chronicle.

It is not just the aforementioned daily newspapers but other dailies that were equally reluctant to experiment with the business sections of the newspapers. While there have been regular layout experiments and evaluation carried out for other sections of the newspapers, the same has not been the case for the business sections. This was further verified with R Banumathi, The Associate Copy Editor of India Today, and a widely circulated weekly in India. Banumathi has been in print media for the past 25+ years and has experiences related to various national dailies. When queried about why business sections in daily newspapers, seldom went through a layout change, she also pointed out the following

1. The ads for a newspaper are mostly not carried in the business sections. The ads that are carried on the business columns do not span across large space.
2. It is generally observed that business columns are read only by readers who are either interested in business or related to a profession in business. This includes readers in banking, personal business, and entrepreneurship.
3. It is generally observed that the business section readers do not want a vibrant layout, instead it is believed that such a layout will be deemed distractive and will take away the serious overtone that the article carries.
4. She said “Imagine a colorful vibrant layout being used for a business column. It disrupts the mood of the article, the person reading the article and most importantly, the impact the column is supposed to make is disturbed". She also pointed out that the business section readers do not expect a vibrant layout to keep them reading the article and that they rather prefer it without experimental changes.

Though it can be agreed that the layout design of the front page or the entertainment page cannot be applied entirely to the business section, the monotonous layout as mentioned earlier, would seem to drive away new readers who have not read business columns and feel intimidated by their layouts.

To back up our assertion, we conducted a survey with 25 participants (13 female and 12 male, in the age group of 23-60) from varied backgrounds of careers. The participants have never read business columns in newspapers. They were asked to answer a simple questionnaire designed to identify whether the readers felt that the long standing view that business columns should not carry an engaging layout stands true with the readers.

An email link of the questionnaire was sent to the participants who reside in India  and were asked to answer the following questions
a. Are you interested in news related finance, stock trading banking or business in general?
b. Do you read business columns in daily newspaper?
c. If you answered yes to question b, are you content with the current layout design followed by the business sections?
d. If you answered no to question b, do you read business sections in mobile news apps or mobile websites?
e. Do you find the layout design carried by the business sections intimidating, if not explain why
f. Will you consider read or exploring business sections if the layout is changed?
g. Comments

The main aim of the questionnaire was to identify if the business section play a role in influencing a person to read the paper. It was found that 15 of the 25 participants did not read the business sections and 11 of the 25 participants read business and political news on mobile sites. Interestingly 18 participants found the business columns intimidating and several of the participants used the word boring to describe the layout. When asked about the decision to read the section if layout changes 23 participants stated that they would consider reading it and or skimming through it.

The above study verifies that the layout design does play a significant role in intimidating a person from glancing through the business sections. Interestingly majority of the participants who did not read the newspaper read the same column on a mobile site and termed it readable, which further shows that the layout of the business columns contribute towards readability. It is long believed that business columns do not attract readers mainly because of the nature of the topic and its serious undertones; however, it is important to note that the reading audiences' view on presentation of an article should not be unnoticed.

Newspapers and news media, rightly called the fourth pillar of democracy, hold the responsibility for educating readers on subjects and issues that need attention in the world. The news media is held accountable for educating the readers on a variety of different subjects that range from language to the state of affairs. Therefore it is also equally important for the media to experiment with layouts in order for people to explore different sections of news among which the business section plays an important part.

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