The Wide World of Info Boxes

When we think of a newspaper front page, we think of three things: headline, text, and photo. It goes to the basic essence of what a story is – every book we’ve ever read has a title, words to read, and something to look at.

But with only those three things, it’s just that – basic. Sure, you can do some good things with just those three elements, but why not add a little more to your story? Let’s give our readers something to help them understand the story a little better. Let’s push the limits of storytelling.

The best way to do this is with info boxes.Screen shot 2015-03-26 at 11.47.42 AMTake a look at a newspaper front page. When you really start to look closely, you notice the extras that the editors have added to compliment the story. As readers, we take them for granted, because they are always there, always helping us better understand the story. But in journalism school, when we make the transition from readers to editors, we lose sight of that. Editors need to make a conscious decision to add info boxes, so that readers can unconsciously understand the story better.

And from a design perspective, a page looks much better when there are elements that compliment each other; items that do things on the page that the other items can’t.

Disclaimer up front – more info boxes does not necessarily mean a better-looking page. You can still clutter the page by trying to cram too much in there. But an info box or two, combined with a strong headline, dynamic photo, and well-written story can make all the difference for your readers.

Also – when using these things, keep them UP AND OUT OF THE WAY. Info boxes should not make the story harder to read. If a layout is like this:

DEPP1It forces the reader to jump over the pull quote to continue reading. It’s also confusing as to where the eye travels: does it stop reading in the second column and go to the third, or jump over?

But when a layout is like this:

depp2It’s much cleaner and makes more sense to the eye. The pull quote is moved UP AND OUT OF THE WAY. It’s easy to read and follow the text. DO NOT PUT PULL QUOTES IN THE MIDDLE OF COLUMNS.

Let’s take a look at the different kinds of info boxes you can add to your page, along with their advantages and drawbacks.

Screen shot 2015-04-07 at 10.02.32 AMThe most common one is called a pull quote. This is when a strong quote from the story is pulled out of the text and made larger so that it jumps out to the reader. If the quote is strong enough, it’s an easy way to draw the reader in to the story. Find quotes that have powerful words, like “heartbreaking” in this case.

The problem with pull quotes is that they are TOO easy to use, and editors often use them as a crutch. It doesn’t require any thinking on the editor’s part, just “slap a pull quote on there, I need to fill the space!” In many cases, the pull quote doesn’t really add anything to the story except filler. Remember, when using info boxes, follow the advice of “Newspaper Designer’s Handbook” author Tim Harrower: “Information over decoration.” Add to the story, don’t just take up space.

Screen shot 2015-04-07 at 11.18.40 AMAnother of the most common types of info boxes is the date/time box. It does exactly what you think: gives the date and time of an event. Whether it’s a sporting event, show, presentation, or speech, your readers will ask the same questions: “What? When? Where???” Don’t make them search through the text to find out when President Obama is visiting – pull that information out and make it easy to find. If the surviving Beatles are getting back together and giving a free concert, I want to know immediately where and when it’s happening. If I have to search for it, you’ve failed as a newspaper.

Screen shot 2015-04-07 at 10.36.19 AMAnother example is called a tease. It’s a promise to the reader of more information if they “turn to page A8” or “go to” This is most effective when it’s used to connect readers to a related story in a different section – such as a related editorial – or to drive their print readers to the web site for video, social media, and web-exclusive content. You always need to keep your readers glued in to your content. Every lead story should have some kind of tease to let readers know that they can find more, either by going online, deeper in the paper, or in tomorrow’s issue.

Screen shot 2015-04-07 at 10.11.22 AMRemember to keep your boxes visually interesting, while also giving information. A perfect example of that is a map. In print media, it can be hard for readers to understand exactly where something is happening. Addresses mean nothing without context. A map allows readers to visualize exactly where the event took place, or how far apart things are from each other. Any story that has to do with a location, or mileage, or directions should have a map. It doesn’t need to be elaborate – just some pinpoints and major roads should do it.

Screen shot 2015-04-02 at 11.14.27 AMSometimes a complicated story needs to be condensed down. As we showed last week in our breakdown of the Sacramento Bee’s drought front page, sometimes you need to put your information into a format that people with short attention spans can understand. Bullet points are great at that. When people pick up a front page and see a story that angers, upsets, or confuses them, they don’t want to wade through the mountains of text to get the details. Editors should try to serve up that information on a silver platter. As an editor, ask yourself “how does this affect me as an average person? What would I be worried about? What questions would I have?”

When using bullet points, remember:

  • Answer questions
  • Keep it short
  • Put it on the front page where it’s easily visible

Sometimes you have more information than can fit in the body text of the story. In that case, pull it out and put it on the page!

Screen shot 2015-04-07 at 10.10.57 AMLists aren’t just for Buzzfeed. They are easy to digest, and give some good complimentary info to a story. This list was alongside an Arizona Republic story about the threat to the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. The story itself focused heavily on the Colorado River and what was being done in Arizona. But a reader might think “I wonder what other rivers are endangered?” Well, look no further, because there’s a list there to answer that question! It’s short, it’s simple, and it gets the job done.

Screen shot 2015-04-07 at 10.12.20 AM

And sometimes you just need to answer simple questions. I love this info box made by the Northwest Herald, because it answers the typical questions everyone has during an election. “Who are these people?” (More candidate info is on, “Where and when to I vote?” (Polling times are listed), and “How do I know who wins?” (follow us online for real-time info).

Your audience will always have questions, and your job is to answer them as easily as possible. Sometimes the best way is to just lay out the Q&A yourself.

Again, a single page with all of these on it might be too cluttered. But a tease and a map, or a list and a pull quote, or bullet points and an agenda, can make a big difference in the look and feel of your page.

There are so many more types of info boxes that aren’t listed here. Use your imagination! If you were reading the story, what would help YOU understand? It’s a big world of info boxes, and it’s time to start exploring them.

Page elements courtesy of Newseum, Tim Harrower

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