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This might not be the right place to ask, but I was wondering why newspapers use multiple columns? Does it take up less space, or is there a visual reason?

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7 Answers 7

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I am amazed that not one of the responses gave the ACTUAL reason which is that it is far easier to work with shorter line lengths when it comes to the type set. This is especially true with the Linotype machine which revolutionized the newspaper industry. These devices actually formed the type set plates as they went along, line by line, creating molds that would be used to form the type. Much easier to make molds that were no greater than 2 inches worth of characters. And before that when laying out the type set was done by hand, it would be much easier to work with smaller lines at once.

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Hi Lakawak, welcome to GDSE and thanks for your answer. If you have any questions, please see the help center or ping one of us in the Graphic Design Chat once your reputation is sufficient (20). Keep contributing and enjoy the site! – Vincent Oct 27 at 9:34
+1 I'm also amazed no one mentioned this as the real (simple) reason to use columns was entirely technical. Unfortunately, sometimes people elaborate by googling and this was not on google; that's why they only found stuff about "readability"! Very misleading. (Typesetting - Manual Press Print and Page Layout) – go-junta Oct 31 at 0:47
Note that I did mention the typesetting-by-hand issue in my answer, though yours is definitely a bit more detailed in that particular aspect. – DA01 Nov 2 at 7:32
@DA01 Not a bit more detailed, it is detailed and on target. You hypothesized on advertising which is totally wrong. That's why this question needed a bounty, the answers are misleading even though they have high scores. At least the "easy to read" part is partly right today for stock market data and classified ads, for obvious reasons. Advertising can use any amount of columns and are placed pretty much anywhere. That grid system isn't exclusive to newspaper layouts and todays tabloids/newspapers don't always restrict themselves to the "small columns format". This is a good simple answer! – go-junta Nov 4 at 1:06
@go-meek no, that's not totally wrong. Advertising is the primary reason the multi-column layout exists well into the digital age. Ads are always the priority, with copy following. The multiple columns allow for the most flexibility in both--selling the ads, and flowing the copy. Historically, hand setting type was a factor, for sure, but it's been many decades since we've last set hand-type for newspapers. Anyways, I'm not sure why you feel you need to be defensive. I in no way said it wasn't a good answer. – DA01 Nov 4 at 3:18

Small columns of text are easier to read than large ones. Imagine a newspaper sized line that stretched across an entire page. It would be very easy to skip a line. Using columns can make it easier to read, especially when the focus is on text on very large papers.

The same concept is used in brochures, which tend to be folded over paper.

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Linked below is a short but good read summarizing different studies on line lengths. Studies were done as far back as the 1880s demonstrating that optimal line-length for reading was between 3.6 - 4 inches. Even 50 years later, this was still the deal:

One of the best studies was done by Tinker and Paterson in 1929. Using 10-point black type on white paper, they found that line lengths between 3 inches and 3.5 inches (75 to 90 mm) yielded the fastest reading performance. Paragraphs with line lengths of 7.3 inches (185 mm) were read slowest. The authors proposed that longer line lengths obviously require greater lateral eye movements, which seemed to make it more likely that users would lose their place within the text.

Bob Bailey, Ph.D.
UI Design Newsletter – November, 2002

Bailey mentions that this held true until computer monitors became more prevalent. He cites several studies in the 1980s & onward indicating that, on computer screens, longer lines are read faster, while users prefer lines of 4 to 5 inches in length (the fact most relevant to your question). Other research shows that more whitespace improves comprehension (Chaparro, Baker, Shaikh, Hull, and Brady, 2004).

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I wonder why computer monitors are easier to read? – Tyler Gillies Sep 6 '11 at 5:21
@Tyler Could be loads of different variables... screen-resolution/font-display-size, working distance, environmental variables, age of participants, literacy rates, ...the list goes on. I'm sure the studies account for these things, but I haven't read them so your guess is as good as mine. – Farray Sep 6 '11 at 5:48
The problem with this answer is that most newspaper columns are actually overly narrow compared to most (admittedly specious) line-length studies. Most newspapers are in the 1.5-2.5" length. – DA01 Sep 6 '11 at 14:01
@DA01 Interestingly, according to Modern Advertising by Earnest Elmo Calkins, Ralph Holden (1905) "The standard newspaper column is 13 pica ems wide or 2^ inches." So even at the time of the studies linked above, newspaper column widths were much smaller. Your answer is certainly more correct... – Farray Sep 7 '11 at 16:22
I don't think it's true that longer lines are easier to read on a screen. I think the problem is that with columns, the column height may cause you to scroll often (which is not ideal) so it is difficult to implement a multi-column layout on a screen, which is why they are not as prevalent. – Andrew Sep 12 '11 at 19:33

Advertising. While it's a noble idea that it was done for readability, newspapers, in general, have columns that are overly narrow compared to most given readability information/data.

Having multiple columns allows for a very versatile ad grid, and, traditionally, newspapers were in the business of selling ads.

It also allows more stories to appear on the page at once (all being continued elsewhere). This is partially to get more headlines in view of the reader, but also allows for a lot more flexibility for the page layout team to get all the ads to fit. When a newspaper is laid out, all the ads are first put into place, and then the content is flowed around it and, quite often, re-edited to fit the column lengths available.

The bonus side effect is that a reader is now scanning not only across multiple columns (and thereby being exposed to multiple ads) but also has to now flip to multiple pages (again increasing the odds of seeing a particular ad).

And if you go WAY back in time when type was set by hand and/or linotype, you needed a continuous column of type for easy typesetting. Ads were locked up completely separate from the text and you didn't have the ease/opportunity to flow text around elements within the column itself. Keeping columns narrow simply offered the most flexibility for both the ad layout and the typesetting.

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In paragraph-formatted text, there will generally be about half a word of useless space in each line, and about half a line of semantically-useless empty space following each paragraph. In text with long paragraphs, wider columns will reduce the amount of space wasted on line breaks without overly increasing the space wasted on paragraph breaks. In text with short paragraphs, however, use of wider columns would substantially increase the amount of space wasted on paragraph breaks, in addition to calling undue visual attention to paragraphs which ended up being less than two full lines long. Because newspaper articles often have shorter paragraphs than novels, use of shorter columns increases the amount of text that will fit in a given area, and because newspapers are very sensitive to printing cost, such considerations are more important than ease of reading.

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An interesting theory, but I don't know that it holds up. While I agree the narrow columns reduce wasted 'end of paragraph' space they introduce a whole lot of extra tracking/word spacing due to word wrapping and justification. In the end, though, wasted space with text isn't a priority. The priority is getting the ads to fit. If there is too much text, that's much easier to handle via editing. – DA01 Jun 17 '14 at 17:38

The use of multiple columns is used for many reasons. Not only is it easier to read, it allows printers to draw attention to more important articles by making columns larger. It provides structure to the page and separates the articles in a way that naturally catches the eye (think rule of thirds.) It also works better for type, and easier to fit in advertisements. Imagine how boring a newspaper would look if all the articles were the width of the whole page, same font-size and all in order.

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Hi Ty, welcome to GDSE and thanks for your answer. If you have any questions, please see the help center or ping one of us in the Graphic Design Chat once your reputation is sufficient (20). Keep contributing and enjoy the site! – Vincent Nov 3 at 17:35

To add to Lakawak answer (who is right), yes back in the beginnings of newspapers, typesetting was the reason why newspapers were limited to only use multi-columns. It was a technological issue caused by the printing process.

As Supercat also mentioned:

Now, as for any other graphic design projects or layouts, the reason why newspapers or some magazines probably stick to the 2-3-4+ multi-columns is because of their text format, they have a journalistic/news style.

If you look at the way the texts are written in newspapers, each paragraph often contains only 1-2 sentences because that's how news are reported; they are (usually) simple facts, not story-like sentences like you will find in novels.

If this text was on a 1-column layout, there would indeed be a waste of space as every "paragraph" would probably look like a list.

Not only there's a waste of space but it doesn't look good anyway (my opinion). Using multi-columns makes the sentences more compacts, creates nice blocks of paragraphs and more text can be inserted in a page. It's also more flexible since more than one article can be inserted on the same page. So layout and the style of the texts are the modern reasons why some newspapers use multi-columns, for the same reason why the bibles are often printed this way, or phone books, or dictionaries, etc.

If you look at high quality or scientific newspapers or magazine you will notice a lot of them will have no issue using a 1-2 columns instead of 4+ because the format of their text is different; a scientific, editorial or technical text is different from the journalistic style and the paragraphs may contain more than 3 sentences; unlike news that are trying to report events or facts in the simplest way possible for the biggest audience possible, these other styles usually have the freedom to explain things, use long words, no abbreviations and add their own personal style to the text as well. They also follow a different structure or methodology. Same goes for some sections of tabloids or standard newspapers, for example the "life" or "celebrity" sections; the format of the text is different, these pages are not always printed in multi-columns for that reason.

Advertising is secondary and doesn't require the use of columns in our digital era; anything can be any size and placed anywhere. Some newspapers don't even have ads within their articles but they still use the multi-column layout style. We do use some grid system in graphic design but that goes for pretty much any layout or project, it's not specific to newspapers. We simply use multi-columns when it makes sense!

As for being easier to read, it's probably true for classified ads or stock market pages, but I doubt it is for longer texts since the eye cannot follow the next sentence entirely if that sentence is split on 3-4 lines. To my knowledge (and I could be wrong), it's easier to read and understand a text when a sentence and the following sentence are entirely visible.

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