Flush left: It’s a choice
MOST NEWSPAPERS set their body text justified. It runs from the left edge of the column to the right edge and the spacing between words is evenly distributed.
Some choose to set body text flush left for columns, features and the like, pushing the extra word spacing to the right side of the type.
I’ve recently received some inquiries about the difference between the two and if one is better than the other. I often recommend flush left text throughout when I’m redesigning small newspapers.
Although there are editors (and typographers) who will go to their graves screaming that one is superior to the other, there is no incontrovertible proof that either is easier to read. There also is no incontrovertible proof that one is longer than the other over the length of a full story.
Nevertheless, justified text is clearly the choice at most newspapers.
Why? For many newspapers, it’s because “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” Or the editor learned long ago during a J-school class that “justified should always be used for hard news, though you may use flush left for features and columns and the like.” It’s my belief that the professor who laid down that rule was told many years before that “justified should always be used for hard news, though you may use flush left for features and columns and the like.”
For all of my almost-50 years in newspapering, it’s been “the way we’ve always done it.”
In the face of all that, I suggest that flush left text is every bit as readable, every bit as comfortable as justified text.
Some points to consider:
LENGTH: Again, there is no incontrovertible proof that a story set flush left will be any longer than one set justified. It depends on the paragraph breaks.
COMFORT: There is no proof that justified text is any easier to read than flush left—or vice versa. One advantage to flush left is that it automatically adds more negative space to the page, giving your paper a more open look.
TRADITION: Here, the advantage goes to justified text. It’s certainly a more traditional, more conservative approach. Some would argue that this gives your paper more credibility.
READER REACTION: When asked about the difference between justified and flush left body text, the strong majority of readers don’t even notice—and those that do will say it makes no difference to them.
In the illustration with this column, the text on the left is justified. Check the type next to that mug shot. The word spacing is awful, isn’t it? Now check the type next to the mug shot in the column that’s set flush left. No ragged word spacing there, because all of the space is pushed to the right of the column.
Unfortunately, most editors at most small newspapers pay little attention to this—partly because they haven’t been trained to and partly because they just don’t notice it. And, if they do notice it, they don’t know how to fix it or they feel they just don’t have the time to make any adjustments on deadline. So, they let this go. And it looks sloppy. And looking sloppy certainly detracts from their newspaper’s credibility.
I am not arguing here that you should change your body text from justified to flush left. I am pointing out that it’s worth considering. When I’ve redesigned newspapers using flush left throughout, there’s been very little reader reaction to the switch—if they notice at all.
Here’s a quick story to sum up:
A few years ago, I mentioned to a publisher—and the VP for editorial of the group I was working with—that they should consider flush left as part of the redesign we were working on. They both argued that justified was the only acceptable way to run body text and that readers would not like the change.
The next day, I asked them to look at some mockups. I had prepared two sets—each of four pages—for them to review. Each set was comprised of mockups of page 1, the opinion page, the sports front and the obits page.
Remember: this is a publisher and a VP/Editorial. These guys are experienced newspapermen who have reviewed thousands of pages during their time in the business. They have an eye for what works.
I gave them about five minutes to review the pages while I sat silent. After the five minutes, I asked them to tell me the difference between the two sets.
“None. There is no difference,” they insisted.
I pointed out to them that in one set, the body text was justified, while in the other set the text was flush left.
That afternoon, the decision was made to set body text flush left.