Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Honey, I Shrunk the Journal

I've been a loyal reader of the Wall Street Journal for the last fifteen years. (I'm still young enough that it boggles my mind to say I've been doing anything for fifteen years.) But I'm not a stuffy old-school businessman who reads stock tables for fun, or who keeps tabs on who is merging with whom. As a (ahem) younger, hipper, more technologically savvy reader, you would think I would be the most flexible when it comes to changes in media.

And yet here is the new, redesigned Wall Street Journal in front of me. Now, I was entirely copacetic when they put a highlights banner above the masthead, and started using color, and even (gasp) put advertising on the front page of the bottom fold. It was still the Journal, it still felt like the Journal, just a more modern, younger, hipper Journal, one that was accommodating to modern business trends without selling out.

But this time they made the Journal physically smaller: it's about an inch and a half narrower. Of all the things they could do, this one is inescapably obvious and difficult to overlook. I heard an NPR story on the change, so I heard all about the rationale for having a smaller paper: saving trees, saving a lot of money, and making better use of the Web. If anything, I breathed a sigh of relief to find that they had moved the stock tables to the Web; those pages and pages of arcane listings just screamed last-century, and after all, when was the last time you looked up a stock price in a newspaper? I agree with all those changes, and it was obviously the right thing to do.

And still . . . the world is out of joint.

Take a look at the really well-made play-money that preschoolers use in their play supermarket cash registers. It might be exactly the right shade of green, and have the same visual texture, to the point where it is unmistakeably supposed to be money. And yet it is always significantly smaller than real money, and that's the queue to your subconscious: "Oh, this is play-money, not real money." Looking at such stuff is always a little jarring, with your brain quietly muttering, "money, not-money, money, not-money, money, not-money". And I swear to God, I look at the new Journal and feel like I picked it up at the preschooler checkout line with my play money. My very own play-Wall-Street-Journal.

I know that's overly harsh. I know that inside of a month I will have forgotten about the difference. But I'm fascinated with how the mind "gestalts" things, picking out essential characteristics. And one of the essential features of a newspaper has always been its size. Until now. But that shows the creativity of the publishers, I suppose, to break out of that mold. I remember the first time I saw the London Financial Times, with its eerie pink color looking exactly like rose quartz, and a similar gestalt feature exploded in my head. So someday, maybe, my kids will be reading the journal and will be amazed to see that the Journal was ever a different size.

It also gives me a clue as to where to look for really creative changes in other venues. What characteristics are a part of the subconscious gestalt, but still not essential to the character of a thing? What changes might we be overlooking, just because it defied our mental categories?



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