A sidebar, according to my Encarta World English Dictionary, is "a short news story containing supplementary information that is printed alongside a featured story." The term is also used in Web design, where sidebars provide information through quick links to other parts of the site, or links to related materials on other sites.
Meantime, back at the hard-copy desk, sidebars are a dynamic editorial element for a multitude of reasons:
1. They break up the gray of text-heavy pages. This makes a story more appealing to the reader in a hurry and can lure the browser into the main story.
2. Sidebars allow you to provide a different take on the story in condensed form. Its content can be counterpoint or an alternative view to the main story;great for minority reports, for the funny side of a serious topic, or vice versa.
3. Sidebars enable you to condense and cluster information;such as a list of names, addresses, Web sites, phone numbers and other facts;that would otherwise slow down or interrupt the narrative flow if scattered through the story.
4. If a story requires background information that may be familiar to some readers, put it in a sidebar. Those familiar with the oft-told tale can ignore it; newbies can dig in.
5. You can also tighten a story by converting excess material into lists, statistics, questions, or key points in a checklist. This reader-friendly sidebar provides at-a-glance access to information the reader can act on quickly.
There are as many sidebar techniques but here are six approaches I have observed in numerous magazines:
Sidebars often relate to the reader directly with the "you" angle. If you are profiling a successful business person, a sidebar could contain some general information on how you can set up your own business.
General to Specific
Sidebars can profile specific companies’ best practices.
This Just In
Late-breaking information, news.
A visual with text, this shows the story in context;how it all began, and how we arrived at this situation.
First Person Singular
One person’s view, usually a minority opinion, on the topic.
Mini Case Studies
The Week did a story on gossip and celebrity journalism. Sidebar: "The Rise & Fall of Confidential," a magazine that lived and died (in 1978) after years of battering and battling stars.
Sidebars can be a seamless way to merge your print publication with your Web site. The Christian Science Monitor, for instance, asked bookstore owners which books they were reading during the summer "beach season." Answers poured in, of course, as booksellers were suddenly in a position to sell their favorite things: Books. The surplus information was highlighted in a sidebar that directed readers to the publication’s Web site to read all responses.
A Sidebar on Sidebars, of course
Eight tips and techniques for handling sidebars.
1. Length: one page or less. Never more.
2. Placement should be alongside main story. Never at end.
3. Content should self contain, not depend on main story.
4. Typographically, head and deck should relate to the main story. Body type can vary.
5. Heads can be more direct, simple, even labels. Clever is rare.
6. Visually, there should be contrast;box and color tint; tint without box; box without tint; air; different leading.
7. Can have graphic element (pic with caption) or pull quote.
8. Byline (name or initials) at end.
John Brady is visiting professional at the Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University. He conducts editorial workshops for professionals and is a partner at Brady & Paul Communications, a publishing consultancy. For information on his Editor’s Tool Kit, e-mail him at Bradybrady@aol.com