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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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4 Answers 4

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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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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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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

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