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Elder Wisdom

The Little Font That Could

What's So Funny?
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Nobody reads the fine print. On a related note, the New York Times has killed off the agate page in its sports section.

For those not with me in the geezer ink-stained wretch demographic, agate type is the smaller-than-average font-size that newspapers use to deliver lots of information while saving space and newsprint costs. Agate was traditionally utilized by, say, editors in the business section for stock prices, and by their brethren in the sports section for standings, box scores, transactions, and horse racing entries; you know, all the stuff that folks no longer need to buy the New York Times, or any daily anywhere, to get. Times editor Ben Hoffmann revealed in a sentimental Twitter thread over the weekend that the news that came in “6-point type” was no longer deemed fit to print: After Monday’s edition, the agate page in the paper’s sports section was dead.

I grew up reading (and delivering) the Washington Post, and remember discovering with incredible glee that if you keep flipping pages past the politics and war stories and all the other news for grown-ups you’d eventually get to a whole section about sports. And that every Sunday, a couple pages in that section would be devoted to the latest batting and pitching statistics of every single player in the major leagues. Even the Washington Senators! Long after the Senators left town, those pages in the Post kept me up on the sport I loved and saved me from having to schlep to the newsstand every week to buy a hard copy of the Sporting News, the only other source of hardcore baseball numbers that I knew of back then. Agate made it all possible. But as much as the disappearance of little letters and numbers hurts me, I can’t say I never saw it coming. 

I began coming to terms with the looming end of agate while writing a story in late 2006 about the Washington Post ditching its small type. The paper had just announced it was ceasing publication of racing charts from the Maryland racetracks, Pimlico and Laurel Park. The Post had been publishing racing results and entries from those and other tracks in the region, almost always in small print, dating back to the ’70s—as in the 1870s. In a memo that ran in the Dec. 31, 2006 edition of the Post telling readers of the end of the paper’s equine agate era, the sports editor said patrons now wanted and deserved more space devoted to stories on the “new teams in the area,” including the Washington Nationals, and not oodles of numbers from the ponies. The paper had already done away with the all-encompassing Sunday baseball stats and daily Wall Street prices pages by then. (The Sporting News went all digital in December 2012.) Joe Kelly, a career newspaperman in Baltimore and fixture in Maryland racing circles who I got to know and admire during my years working at the racetrack, told me back then that even he had to accept that the agate sections he always gravitated to were obsolete. “Who would have ever thought that you could get racing results in your living room?” Kelly told me. He was 88 years old at the time.

The Post’s memo about agate’s demise advised readers to go to the web to find all the information the newspaper previously provided. That counsel holds for fans of the Times’ agate section, too. RIP, agate.