Wall of Grief: The power of a front page

Top half o the New York Times Feb. 21 cover.

By Brad Needham

Once in a while, on a day you wouldn’t expect, a front page comes along that leaves readers awestruck. It’s a page that does something to convey a story or an idea so big. Through a design, through a graphic, through an image. Sunday’s New York Times front page was such a page.

At a quick glance, the reader wouldn’t even know what they were looking at. The Gray Lady was even greyer as the primary graphic on the page was black and white and at first indiscernible.

It doesn’t get you at first glance. But when you look deeper you see it. The graphic is made up of nearly 500,000 dots, each one representing an American who has died from COVID-19. On the front page of the New York Times, about half the page taken up by almost 500,000 tiny dots. In newsprint almost certainly blending together becoming unrecognizable as single dots as the death toll starts increasing at an alarming rate. The page goes from grey and white to almost a block of black. That is part of what makes it so powerful. How in itself it tells a story. The dots blur together.

New York Times cover, Sunday, Feb. 21.

It goes to speak to the power that still resides with newspapers and why I celebrate them. Of course it’s easy to celebrate the New York Times, though more often than not it’s for the reporting, not the design. It may not be as grey as it once was, but its front page is still usually pretty busy. Even this one has other stories. Imagine if the entire front was simply this graphic?

In a New York Times Insider article about this page, Nancy Coleman explains that a similar version of the graphic ran online in January. Despite that, I didn’t see much about it on Twitter or other social media. But when I searched for front pages on Sunday, this page was everywhere. And that’s quite a feat for a newspaper page.

“The prominent real estate in the print edition conveyed the significance of this moment in the pandemic and the totality of the devastation,” she says in the article.

Because there is still nothing like it. The power of the front page. Where real estate is finite.

It may sound like a contradiction, but the graphic is both painfully simple — dots — and thoughtfully complex. What often gets lost in newspaper design is what happens before the execution. Someone is conceptualizing. They are either given a story or idea and told to come up with something or they come up with a concept and run it by their editors.

A huge shoutout to New York Times graphic editors and the graphics co-ordinator who worked on this (Lazara Gamia, Lauren Leatherby and Bill Marsh) as well as those who made the decision to run this in print. The insider article, linked to above, is a must read for those who wonder what goes into such decisions.

… unlike the previous approaches, Sunday’s graphic depicts all of the fatalities. “I think part of this technique, which is good, is that it overwhelms you — because it should,” Mr. Gamio said.

From the NYT insider article

Here is some of the reaction from Twitter, just a sampling as there was a lot more.

Any time the front page of a newspaper makes such an impact in the digital world, and not for something stupid, it deserves to be called out. So thank you, New York Times, for such a powerful page. A devastating milestone captured not only for today’s readers, but beyond.

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