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January 2009 Archives

January 7, 2009

Dude, Where's My Town?

With the holiday gift-giving season behind us, there are a lot of new World Almanacs floating around out there. For the most part, feedback on the 2009 edition has been positive -- especially from those readers who have begged us for years to hold the book open for U.S. election results, World Series stats and summaries, and expanded coverage of the year's news events.

Of course, you can't please everyone: a few die-hard, long-time readers of the World Almanac are up in arms over the disappearance of the chapter on "Places of 5,000 or More Population." It's not a printing error, and it's not an editorial oversight: we made a conscious (and difficult) decision to remove that chapter from the 2009 World Almanac. Even if you don't particularly miss that chapter, the factors driving our decision may still give you some insight into how the book comes together and changes each year:

The Elephant (and Donkey) In the Room: We knew at the start of 2008 that it would be an historic election year -- the first in more than 50 years without a sitting president or vice-president in the race; the largest slate of "Super Tuesday" primary states in history; and to many observers, strong odds that we could end the year with either the first woman or first African American elected to the presidency. We also knew that long-time World Almanac readers wouldn't tolerate a 2009 edition that came up short in election coverage, so we blocked out room for summaries of the campaign; candidate biographies; detailed preliminary results for presidential, congressional, and gubernatorial races; and information on key ballot initiatives across the country. The grand total? Approximately 40 pages. Total length of the "5,000 or more" chapter? 34 pages -- one of the longest chapters, and the largest single data set in the book, and thus the best candidate for elimination, since one deletion could give us almost all the room we needed for election coverage.

Death by a Thousand Cuts: So why single out that chapter, when we have more than 1,000 pages and dozens of chapters to choose from? If we had to open up a few dozen pages, why couldn't we use (to borrow some campaign lingo) a scalpel instead of a hatchet? In short, the "scalpel" approach isn't quite as clean as it sounds. We can't make room by cutting a few lines from World History, and a half-page from Sports, and a handful of entries from Tall Buildings, without throwing the book's layout and pagination into disarray; individual chapters have to grow or shrink in full-page increments. And within any individual chapter, it's a tall order to identify full pages that could be deleted as they stand -- and even harder to free up a full page by making minor cuts to many different parts of that chapter. We use both techniques on a limited basis each year: close observers may note that several pages of sun and moonrise data were cut from Astronomy a few editions ago, or that selected tables in Aerospace and other statistical chapters have been condensed to fit in less space. But when we need to free up 40 pages in a single edition, those piecemeal deletions simply won't do the trick.

Free and (Slightly Less) Easy: Another reason to remove the "5,000 or more" chapter this year: 20 years ago, or even ten years ago, the presence of this information in the World Almanac represented a substantial service to most readers. Detailed information about local populations, area codes, and zip codes was harder to come by, even for the smaller percentage of U.S. residents who had internet access in those decades. And while some people persist in thinking of our book as an alternative to the Internet, we believe that the future of the World Almanac hinges on our ability to serve as a valuable companion to the Internet, and to the vast majority of people in the U.S. who have regular Internet access at home, work, or school. This means occasionally cutting long-standing content that can now be found online freely and easily, and in a more useful form than we could possibly provide. In this case, you can now find detailed information about even the smallest U.S. cities from dozens of independent websites, if not the official sites of the towns themselves... and free, comprehensive, and authoritative information about each element of our chapter is available from the Census Bureau (population), the U.S. Postal Service (ZIP codes), and the North American Numbering Plan Administration (Area codes).

No doubt this is small consolation to the few souls for whom that chapter remains a valuable and vital resource. If the outcry is strong enough, we can certainly restore it to the 2010 World Almanac, but in the meantime, we have to be content with the fact that we've made the news, politics, and sports junkies a little bit happier with this edition... and we invite all our readers to let us know what parts of the World Almanac are most valuable to them, and what parts they wouldn't miss in future editions.

Photo: Nolly (Creative Commons, some rights reserved)

About January 2009

This page contains all entries posted to The World Almanac in January 2009. They are listed from newest to oldest.

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