Fact boxes save readers time

Someone asked me the other day whether we were doing something different in the paper.

She had noticed that we were using more short boxes of information with stories to help explain things in quick fashion.

Was that something new?

Well, yes and no.

Fact boxes have been part of newspaper design for a long time. What’s different now is that we’re using them more often and working toward using them more systematically.

We’re paying more attention to how we package the news, particularly the major stories of the day, because it saves readers time.

Story packaging allows us to present complicated information in a way that allows readers to get the gist of a story in a hurry.

For example, in stories reporting on the vote recount in Florida, we created a "What’s next" box to help readers keep track of the process. It summarized the various court challenges and recount developments in a way that could be quickly digested.

Each day we look at the top stories on the schedule and ask whether there’s a way to break out some of the information for people who might only have time to scan the headlines.

By providing summaries of key information, we hope people will learn enough about the story to feel up-to-date on the subject, even if they don’t have time to read the full story.

To help ensure consistency, we’re developing a catalog of devices so readers get used to seeing the same kinds of information presented in the same ways.

Some of the fact boxes pass along basic information. This might include a list of helpful tips, a biographical summary, meeting details (time, date, place) or miscellaneous information such as Web addresses, mailing addresses or phone numbers.

In other cases, we’ll use breakouts to provide supplementary information. This might be a glossary of terms for a specialized subject, a time line of important dates or a step-by-step guide that explains a complex process.

Other breakouts you might see are quote boxes that pull out relevant comments on key topics, checklists that itemize major points or quizzes to allow readers test their understanding of a topic.

Finally, we’re going to be using information boxes to highlight the "what" element of stories we are covering.

Here are a few examples:

  • "What it is." A fast-fact box of nuggets pulled from a story to give readers a quick grasp of who, what when, where or why.

  • "What has happened." An explanation of what went on before this step in the process. This allows readers new to a story to quickly get up-to-date, and also has the benefit of keeping background detail from bogging down the main story.

  • "What you can do about it." Ways readers can become involved.

  • "What’s the problem." A boiled-down synopsis of the core problem.

  • "What it means to you." Why you should be concerned. It’s a definition of your stake in the issue.

    The "What it means to you" box may be the most important of these devices because it tries to show the link between the news and your life.

    That connection may not be immediately apparent in a story about your town’s budget or something happening in the Legislature. But if we can help you see the connection, you’ll get more out of the story.

    So, yes, we are adding elements that we hope will make the paper more useful and easier to read.

    We’re in the early stages of initiating the changes, but hope that before too long these elements will be a daily staple of the paper, easily recognized and easily read.

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