One size does not fit all

For some momentous stories or judgments, we need to tweak the design template to introduce a one-page explainer
Last week, we heard a slew of important Supreme Court judgments that have a profound impact on our lives. The available space within newspapers cannot do justice to the findings of the learned judges, especially in the verdicts where there were dissenting voices. And these dissenting voices do not fall into neat categories like liberal-progressive versus conservative-conformist. The apex court could also not come to a unanimous conclusion on the question of whether the “mosque as a place of prayer is an essential part of Islam” in the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid appeals. While two judges said that there is no need to refer this to a seven-judge Bench, one judge felt otherwise. As the legal correspondent of this newspaper pointed out, Justice S. Abdul Nazeer cautioned against hasty decision-making in the Ayodhya issue. “Here is a small piece of land where angels fear to tread,” he said, quoting Justice S.U. Khan’s observation in the Allahabad High Court judgment.
The art of presenting news stories
Newspapers have a design template where the various elements of a story (headline, blurb, etc.) are shaped as modules. The modules are rectangular and square blocks placed next to each other. This template helps to bring order to the page and allows related stories to be grouped into neat packages. Design editors mix horizontal and vertical modules to break the monotony and create an asymmetry that captures attention. This template also provides readers certainty about what story to find on which page and how news is organised. Within this template, editors try to provide two important elements that constitute public interest journalism: the credible-informational and the critical-investigative-adversarial. In his James Cameron Memorial lecture, N. Ram, Chairman of THG Publishing Private Limited , pointed out that there are two valuable derivatives from these twin functions: the press is an agency for public education and a critical forum for analysis, disputation and comment. How do we efficiently and effectively marry the practice of having a working design template to the need to live up to the crucial requirements of journalism? In the case of The Hindu, there is a weekly page called ‘Who-What-Why-When-Where’ (5Ws). It is a fine explainer page that covers five topics every week.
A feature similar to the 5Ws can be tried to explain the recent judgments. There is no need to think of 5Ws only as a Sunday feature. The design template should be fluid and adapt to new realities. Sometimes, the page should move away from discussing five divergent issues and concentrate on a single issue. Readers would like to have a comprehensive understanding of the arguments of the court and how different judges arrived at divergent conclusions based on the same set of evidence placed before them. Unusual developments call for an extended editorial. But we also need to tweak our systems to render them fluid and responsive to unusual developments on the news pages, and have the courage to play around with a format that works well in normal times.

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