Tahlequah Daily Press

August 20, 2012

The heads on their shoulders harry page designers

Managing Editor

TAHLEQUAH — If Mitt Romney wants to be president, he ought have reconstructive surgery on his skull. And if Barack Obama wants to STAY president, he should pin back his ears.

I’m not the only newspaper editor who feels this way, and my opinion is not based on lookism, racism, sexism or any other “ism.” It’s just that their heads don’t fit the standard boxes designed for mugshots.

Specific facial features of newsmakers are celebrated by editorial cartoonists. Folks with no defining features do not make good subjects for these artists, who home in on a particular aspect of a countenance, and exaggerate it so viewers will immediately recognize the caricature. Bill Clinton was depicted as far more jowly than he really was, with a super-bulbous nose. Richard Nixon’s olfactory organ looked like a ski slope that would have given Shaun White fits of ecstasy.

But what’s rich sauce for the editorial cartoonist can be messy gruel for the editor – or more specifically, the page designer. Some editors just edit copy, but those who wear many hats also design pages. That means to break up the “gray” of a news story, we might drop in a thumbnail-sized box for the facial photo of the subject. Facial photos, in journalese, are called “mugshots.” These should not be confused with photos taken when an alleged miscreant is booked into jail, with backgrounds showing the suspect’s height, both forward-facing and in profile.

Mugshot boxes are typically a bit deeper than they are wide, because human heads are typically longer than they are wide. As newspaper “webs” have decreased in width, pages have become narrower, and mugshot boxes have gotten smaller to accommodate the narrower “columns.” Our mug boxes are .8 inches wide and 1 inch deep.

Years ago, the owners of the Press brought in the chief photographer for the Oklahoman to teach us techniques, including mugshot cropping. We were using larger mug boxes, and were trying to get every part of the head – which sometimes included “big hair” – into the mug box, with a little air on all sides. The Oklahoman photog’s mugs zoomed in on the key facial features: the eyes, nose and mouth. It didn’t bother him to lop off ears, chins and foreheads. We were appalled. It seemed deceptive – immoral, really – to crop out everything but the central 6 inches of a face.

Now, we’ve resigned ourselves. If we want the average face to show up any bigger than a pinhead, we have to make concessions. So if part of the auditory organs must be sacrificed in the name of expediency and proper form, bring on the blade.

When Obama first came on the scene, we knew his side protuberances would be an issue. Cartoonists reveled in his slightly oversized ears, which are his trademark trait, along with his enviably skinny frame. And he’s black, of course, which is unique (thus far) to presidential renderings; the skin tone requires the editorial cartoonist to use more ink. The ink’s not a problem for the mugbox, though the ears are. Initially we clipped them a couple of times, and an uber-Democratic friend or two called to complain. But depending on Obama’s angle in the frame, they help offset the narrow head.

Romney is the biggest challenge to come along in years. He’s an attractive man, with proportionate ears, but the shape of his head could be compared to – how shall I put this to avoid getting unfriended on Facebook by staunch Republican friends? – a member of the “Mr. Ed” family. Mitt forces us to choose which feature succumbs to the crop: the hair or the chinny-chin-chin. Sometimes both, especially if he’s got his mouth open.

Fortunately, the Press is a community newspaper, so most of our mugshots are of local people. Given the nature of our population, many of these mugshots are also the OTHER kind – taken by a deputy rather than a reporter. But others are often handicapped by a coif or a chapeau. I’ve often worried about offending our sheriff, who, as far as I know, has never been photographed without a cowboy hat. He seems to be OK as long as the pic is the “one with the black hat,” as opposed to the one “with the lighter hat.” Then there’s the “big hair” quagmire. Puffed ‘dos with bangs that rear up like angry cobras are destined to slip out of frame, and more than a few local women have complained. One gal called to say, “Hey, what’s the deal? I just got my hair done up and dyed down to Cyndi’s for that pitcher.”

As Americans grow more obese, their faces will also grow wider, and we’ll likely have to revamp our standard mug box to a square format. There may even be a day when the box is wider than it is tall. When that happens, the ears will disappear, no matter how expensive the earrings.

Kim Poindexter is managing editor of the Tahlequah Daily Press.