The Pandemic Papers

By Brad Needham

Up until March of 2020, newsrooms had always been buzzing, busy places. Reporters on calls. The clickety-clack of typing. Editors and designers shouting across the room. Editorial decision-makers making decisions. All in one place. How could it be done any other way? It was about collaboration and community. The community within the newsroom preparing news for the community without. And then on March 11, 2020, the WHO declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic. Not an epidemic. And unlike some of the other pandemics in the past 50 years, this one seemed to capture the attention of everyone. Maybe it was that the NBA postponed its season one year ago today. The NHL followed suit shortly thereafter. Two organizations driven so much by money cancelling their primary revenue streams. Money talks.

But by March 11, or very shortly thereafter, what seemed unthinkable for a newsroom, producing a daily (or weekly) newspaper from anywhere but a newsroom, became a reality. One year ago today or shortly thereafter, newsrooms started shipping computers and keyboards and monitors and mice home. And setting up VPNs. Soon setting up Zoom accounts for all staff.

It was a pandemic. One that caused mass panic. You couldn’t even find toilet paper in most places. I know because I searched high and low trying to find some for an editor who said she couldn’t find any. I found a four-pack and brought it into the office. I went to 10 stores, a little scared in every one. This was pre-masks. Or knowledge.

But was it such a big deal? One that warranted panic buying of toilet paper and canned goods? Hindsight is usually 20/20. In newsrooms one year ago today, discussions were being had about tomorrow’s front page as well. What do we do? Is this bigger than the flu pandemic of 2009? Or the SARS pandemic of 2002? Newspapers are always worried about blowing things out of proportion. So do we play this big, they would be asking? Do we downplay it? Do we talk about soup? It had to be on the front page. But how big?

I’m going to look at some of the papers from March 12, 2020, and then at some from today, March 11, 2021. I admit I was expecting big anniversary covers. That was going to be the focus of this post. Some papers did. Most papers didn’t. It also happens to be the 10th anniversary of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which also caused a nuclear disaster. A devastating tragedy that left 20,000 dead. It is a tragic anniversary, so I acknowledge it here before looking at the pandemic papers of 2020 and 2021.

March 11, 2020 (March 12 in the newspaper world): WHO declares a pandemic

National Post, March 12, 2020

Of all the pages I looked at from March 12, 2020, the National Post cover was the one I felt most hit the mark on the type of play this should get (or should have gotten in hindsight). This was a significant day, and while it was just a declaration, the disease would have spread and wreaked havoc around the world regardless, this was a key moment. This week last year was when everything changed. This page uses a single-word headline, all caps: PANDEMIC. I’ve talked about this in previous posts. It seems so simple. But It was certainly discussed ad nauseum. And to complement that are striking, bold images. And equally important, they blew out the entire page. For a national newspaper to blow out an entire cover it needs to be a significant story. The editors at the National Post felt this was. This was a scary day, and life changed after this. But this is a beautiful page, despite the devastating and deadly outcome over the next year.

Globe and Mail, March 12, 2020

Another national newspaper in Canada also gave it big play. The Globe and Mail, while not as bold as the National Post in this instance, gave the pandemic top-of-the-fold play. And as is typical of the Globe, it uses white space to its advantage. They chose not to blow out the entire front, and while I wasn’t in the room, I can imagine the discussions. First, the Globe targets a different audience. They want information on the front. They often use their real estate to its fullest, having some pages inside without art, or very small art. On top of the pandemic, Harvey Weinstein was also sentenced to 23 years in prison for sex crimes. It was assumed the legal system would go easy on him, as it has with most powerful men charged or convicted of similar crimes. But it didn’t. On many days, this would be a black line story, across the top. It was a significant verdict. The Globe decided it must still make the front. I respect that. And the page is still well executed. It gives the pandemic centre stage, but acknowledges other key news of the day.

Another major Canadian newspaper, the Toronto Star, went a different route. While, other than a throw across the top (also recognizing the importance of the Weinstein verdict) the cover is all about COVID-19 (coronavirus), it’s less splashy and focuses on an intensely Toronto angle: the NBA’s suspension of its season, a.k.a. the end of the Raptors’ season. The cover design itself isn’t outstanding, but it had a clear focus on the news of the day. And looking back at it, you wouldn’t feel they missed the mark. It’s a solid cover. Strong news value.

Toronto Sun, March 12, 2020

I admit I don’t often go to tabloid covers (by tabloid I don’t just mean size) for the design, even though they are often very creative. The Toronto Sun deserves credit here. It doesn’t take that big of a story for a tabloid to blow out its cover. But this has a take on that iconic COVID-19 image. The Earth as a coronavirus, with its telltale spike proteins, the claws that “act as grappling hooks that allow the virus to latch onto host cells and crack them open for infection,” as so well said on the Scripps Research website. Tabloids will often blow things out of proportion, but I’m not here to talk about that (all love, no hate, remember?). I am here to say well done to the Toronto Sun. This a bold, colourful cover. It captures the essence of the day, even if we were uncertain as to what it meant then. Believe the hype. It was worth the strong words and the design. And of course the ad. Who knew how relevant that might be for time spent in solitary confinement for the next year.

I won’t go into each of these with individual posts. My favourite from a design perspective is the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It still looks different than other days, and is clearly taking the declaration seriously. The New York Times is the New York Times, here because of its stature in the journalism world, not for its design. I included the Vancouver Sun because it does have a heavy focus on the pandemic, but also adds a lighter touch: Happiness is warm soup in new coronavirus era (told you there was soup). It almost seems laughable a year later, but surely the editors wanted to present a mix of information. And the Winnipeg Free Press presents a standard newspaper cover. Much like most of this year’s that I have looked at.

March 11, 2021: one year later

When I decided to do this post, I was prepared for covers to be blown out again. It’s been one year since the declaration that changed our lives. Alas, it mostly wasn’t to be. Of course it comes the day after the U.S. Congress passed a $1.9 trillion (TRILLION) pandemic relief package. Money talks. Especially when it’s in the trillions. So there was news to share. And maybe editors were never planning on commemorating the day at most papers. I looked at hundreds of newspaper covers today* (thank you to Freedom Forum for its daily gallery, which I look at almost every day). Two stood out, and both deserve praise. In order of how much I love them (no shame in finishing second here!).
* One additional page of note landed Saturday, a big day for blowout feature pages in Canada, so I am updated to add the March 13 Toronto Star.

Ottawa Citizen, March 11, 2021

It’s … beautiful. This is what I was hoping to see today. This is the kind of page this blog is about. It’s simple. It’s clean. It’s not gimmicky. It uses white space wonderfully. A big headline. A little bit of the story. And it captures the moment from last year. Was this declaration a big deal? Yes. Yes it was. Huge points for the Ottawa Citizen today. To the designers, decision makers, editors and all involved (some direction provided by editors in Ottawa and then further conceptualized and executed by the talented staff in Postmedia’s production hub in Hamilton), well done. As print journalism struggles, it’s comforting to see that someone still cares.

The Arizona Republic takes a bit of a different approach, but the design is still lovely, and really captures the importance of the day. It still gets the story about the $1.9 trillion (trillion!!) aid plan, but also offers a look back to one year ago today. It uses striking imagery right across the top of the page. It’s not an obvious image. You need to really look at it. Which is a great strategy. And the headline is playfully done, unlike a standard headline. Different sizes, different alignments. Strong word choices. So again to those in Arizona, bravo. It’s often a well-designed paper, and today was no different.

A few days after the anniversary, the Toronto Star ran with this cover. It focuses on the people affected by the pandemic. They blew out the front cover for the story (a tear-jerker, particularly if you are wistful about that last week, and the days before). Similar to the initial pandemic cover, the actual design is more basic. A collage of photos. But that it blows out the front page with essentially snapshots is bold. As a reader you know there is a story behind every photo. There are billions of stories over the course of this year. But here the Star shines a light on 10 photos, and more people. I tear up thinking about “The last days of normal.” So points for headline as well. It was. Nothing has been the same since, and may never be. This cover captures that emotion (as do the stories inside).

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