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Sidekick raises a ruckus

I HAD HOPED that my first column would have been a broader discussion of what you can expect from your new ombudsman.

But then came ''Sidekick," and over the last two weeks I've heard from countless Globe readers about how they spend their days and nights with different parts of the newspaper.

It's clear that readers' relationship to the paper goes far beyond headlines, photos, and stories. It's also understandable how a big change to the paper can prompt a chorus of praise from some readers while turning others into angry, pencil-wielding protesters shouting a two-letter word that means the opposite of ''yes!"

On July 11, the Globe introduced ''Sidekick," the new 16-page section published Monday through Saturday. The section, using a tabloid-style layout, offers several features that are meant to be breaks from the news pages of the main broadsheet.

Using large photos, bright, vivid colors, and varying typefaces, Sidekick offers readers an expanded version of what had been the Go! section in Living/Arts -- ideas for things to do around Boston.

It also has more interactive features where readers can share comments and photos that also appear on, the Globe's main website.

At the heart of the section are some of the nomadic items from the broadsheet that now have a permanent home: comics, crossword puzzle (including its cousin, the Jumble), TV listings, and This Day in History, among other things.

The response from readers has been immediate and passionate. Because comments were received in several different places at the Globe, it's hard to say exactly how many readers called or wrote. A few thousand comments over two weeks would be a conservative estimate.

Not surprisingly, most of those who felt strongly enough to send their comments were readers upset by the changes -- especially by the reduction and layout of the crossword puzzle, Jumble, and the elimination of daytime TV listings in favor of an evening grid that includes more channels.

''I am upset at your downgrading of the crossword puzzle to the simplistic sort that is nothing less than insulting to your puzzle fans who have, for many years, enjoyed a brain teaser to exercise the gray matter each morning," reader George Emil Kaiser wrote in an e-mail. ''I never in my life thought that I would write these words, but if the Globe continues this, I'll just cancel my subscription."

In response to early feedback from readers, Sidekick designers enlarged the crossword grid slightly (though still smaller than the old broadsheet version) and moved the box from above the clues to below them.

Other readers bemoaned the spotty quality of the reproduction of photos and graphics and what looks like lighter printing quality -- things that appear to have improved in more recent issues.

Readers who said they liked Sidekick praised its portability as a separate section and the idea of a fixed home for the comics and other features that floated daily in the broadsheet.

''Thank you! Thank you! At last the Globe reached the 21st century," wrote Jessie Test, from Malden. ''This is a huge step in the right direction. My only question is what took you so long."

Globe Editor Martin Baron said the idea behind Sidekick was to create something innovative to attract new readers ''who are looking for something handy to help them navigate their day."

It's true that newspapers everywhere are under intense pressure to build circulation in an age when people have limitless choices for information. In recent years, for example, the Globe has launched the Sunday Ideas section and redesigned the Sunday magazine.

For a newspaper, innovation can happen by improving the way information is gathered or finding new ways to package what already exists. Sidekick looks to be a little of both, and an idea that most readers will, over time, find useful.

It's unrealistic to expect that any change to the newspaper would be embraced by everyone. But in the push to attract new readers, the criticisms from longtime Globe subscribers should not be ignored. The crossword and Jumble should be restored to their original broadsheet size and layout. It would be hard to believe there isn't room to do that somewhere in those 16 pages.

Baron and other editors insist more adjustments and improvements are being considered for Sidekick. A true innovation would be a Sidekick that can draw new readers without alienating the loyal ones.

The ombudsman represents the readers. His opinions and conclusions are his own. Phone 617-929-3020 or, to leave a message, 929-3022. Our e-mail address is

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