Thursday, October 27, 2011

Off My Chest: Give Me One Column for Reading Online Magazines

I get so frustrated when I read any magazine online, but especially genealogy magazines.  Here are two of my pet peeves:

1)  Some online magazines, like Internet Genealogy and Family Chronicle, put two pages in an online image.  On my monitor, they fill the screen at about 55% scale in my PDF reader.  That is too small for me to read comfortably.  Here's an example:

Scrolling down to one of the articles, they are often three columns per page with liberal use of illustrations (which I greatly appreciate, and can be in color in online publications):

However, for me to comfortably read the articles and see the image details I need to use 100% magnification, which renders the top of the page above as:

2)  On the page above, I have to read down the left-hand column, scroll down further, then scroll back up to see the image and read the next column, etc.  Then I have to scroll over to the right-hand page.  That's a lot of scrolling, and my PDF reader jumps sometimes to another page and then I have to find my place again.

Here's another example - my own column in the FGS FORUM Magazine.  This magazine has only one page per image.  Here's the full page image, again at about 55% magnification:  

When I magnify this to 100%, the scrolling problem is as described above.

However, since my column, and articles or columns in genealogy magazines, use many website addresses (URLs), the URLs are often on several lines (which drives authors to use tiny URLs), with more likelihood of being "broken" when published (editing and proofing the URLs is especially hard!). 

Frankly, I prefer a one column layout (with perhaps a sidebar taking up one-third of the page).  One column is better than two columns, and two columns is much better than three columns for online reading, IMHO.  A quick review of American genealogy magazines that I subscribe to reveals:

Internet Genealogy (online and print) - 3 columns,
Family Chronicle (online and print) - 3 columns
Family Tree Magazine (online and print) - 3 columns
FGS FORUM (online only) - 2 columns for articles, 3 columns for columnists, 4 columns for book reviews
NGS Magazine (print only) - 2 columns
American Ancestors (online and print) - 2 columns

Why do all magazines seem to have at least two columns and often have three columns?  I attended Thomas Jones's presentation on "Editing the Society Newsletter" at the FGS Conference in Springfield, and he said that three columns was the standard, but the standard allowed two columns if the lines of text were no wider than five inches.  My understanding was that "studies show that reader's concentration wanders with wider strings of text." 

I would much prefer one column, and frankly it's a lot easier to read newsletters and magazines with only one column of text.  If that column is only five inches wide, that's fine with me.  There are enough illustrations and eye-catchers (pull quotes, sidebars, etc.) that can be used to fill the space nicely.  The benefit for me, with only one column of article text to read (or write), is that I don't have to scroll up or down, lose my place while scrolling, and URLs are usually on only one line. 

I appreciate standards and tradition, but I think that the three column article needs to be dumped and replaced with a two column format at most, and I prefer a one-column article for online readability. 

What about you?  Do you prefer a three column layout over a two column layout in an online or print magazine?  Would you like to see a one column format for online magazines and newsletters?


Dr. Bill (William L.) Smith said...

I have a large monitor for reading such publications... ;-)

Linda Herrick Swisher said...

I've always read that 2-column newsletters were easier to read, so when I took over as editor of the Indiana Genealogical Society Newsletter, I wondered why it was 1-column (it's strictly an online publication). One of our committee heads emailed to welcome me to the position. He clued me in and said he hoped I wouldn't change the 1-column format. I hadn't considered that what was easy to read on a printed page might not be as easy when it's an online PDF.

Kathryn Doyle said...

Randy, thanks for this. I totally agree and it's why the California Genealogical Society eNews is one-column even though I've had a few suggestions to change to a more "traditional" look.

Unknown said...

I think that any publication that creates a physical edition should maintain the multi column format. It is easier to read. However, as more publications created digital editions, they should consider how their publicans are read on a computer. Any publication that is purely electronic should work to create something that is easy to read on a computer and not worry too much about traditional publication "rules."

Celia Lewis said...

It's that transition/history problem, Randy - from old-style reading 2 (or 3) column paper articles, to reading pdf articles on a screen (I have a large monitor also). When publishers move to only electronic articles, we'll switch back to 1-column, I'm sure. Cheers.

Mister Tolley said...

It might not work for all situations, but there is a free application called readability from
which translates webpages into a much better and controllable format for reading. You can set the type size, font/background colour etc. It can also re-format pages to Kindle format and send them to your Kindle account - almost seamlessly.

Debbie Parker Wayne, Certified Genealogist® said...

I'm so glad to find out I'm not the only one who is frustrated by online publication formats. I agree the two or three column format is better for print publication. But as much as I love having my journals and newsletters electronically, I detest all of the scrolling required to read multiple columns even on a large monitor.

When groups just post their print publication for online access I can almost understand not doing the extra work to make it easily readable electronically. But when the only publication is electronic there is no excuse for making it so hard for the reader.

"Someone" should create a tool to reformat documents to one column for PDF publication online. Computers are supposed to work for us, not make us work harder. :-)

Chad said...

Randy, I am able to solve the problem you describe by physically rotating my monitor by 90 degrees (it is designed for that and I think most newer digital monitors are). Before doing the rotation, in Windows 7 I go to the Control Panel, click on Change Screen Resolution, and then change the "landscape" setting to "portrait".

This is also a good change to make for reading online newspapers and lengthy blog posts.