Society for News Design 42: an experience of a lifetime

By Brad Needham

The power of print. Newspapers. It’s the reason I started this blog. Every day I look through hundreds of front pages from newspapers all over the world. Over the course of a few days last week, I had the privilege of looking through some of the best designs in the world at the Society for News Design print competition. It was mind blowing. It actually left me stirring with emotions. To look at one of the most challenging years in our history, at least recent history, through the lens of newspapers around the world. The loneliness and emptiness of COVID-19. The coming together and rallies around George Floyd and the racial reckoning. We probably watched videos. Read countless stories online. Maybe we remember some. But newspaper pages live on. They are a time capsule. I was fortunate enough to be asked to be a facilitator at this year’s SND Best of Print competition. It was even better than I was hoping for.

Some of the judges, organizers and facilitators from SND42.

In my first real newspaper job, I stumbled upon old, tattered SND books. I looked though them, in awe of the brilliance. Wondering if I might be able to learn something. I took them everywhere, even on vacation. I had yellow sticky notes marking inspirational pages. Some books had dozens of pages marked, the sticky notes tattering like the books (two of which I stole from my first workplace — sorry and thanks). Less than 10 years later, I appeared in one of the books. Then again two years later. And again two years later. That was 10 years ago. Every time, the feeling was magical. As newspapers were contracting, I made the fateful decision to move to the Toronto Star shortly after the last award. After just over a year I was laid off, and moved to Pagemasters North America to lead … the production of the Toronto Star. But my design days were mostly left behind. Being at this competition made me wistful and left me with a strong sense of longing. How I wanted to do it again. When I heard that the competition almost didn’t happen this year, I was floored. While print media may be in a period of contraction, I can assure readers there are so many who are still giving it their all. Some of the pages were so powerful. Some brought people to tears. (I might have been one of the tearful.)

De Volkskrant’s entry, “How should things go on after the death of George Floyd?”

I will sprinkle a few of the entries through this post, but I will do another post soon reviewing what I will call my best in show, an actual category at SND that is sometimes awarded and sometimes not. To meet the highest standards, a strong majority of judges need to agree that one submission stands above the rest. In a competition with thousands of outstanding entries, with judges from diverse backgrounds, feeling different emotions, being pulled in different directions, finding one that stands out from the crowd is no easy task.

Los Angeles Times a year in review.

Being in the room listening to the judges was such a joy. And one of the most educational moments in my career in terms of design knowledge. Ten years after my last award and I feel like I know so much more. Listening to the insight different judges had, on both the strengths and failings of different pages. On Sunday while out for a walk, I listened to the Best in Show discussion on my phone. It was like a tennis match, each judge skillfully volleying their opinions, only to have another judge counter with an equally insightful opinion on the other side.

There were pages from all over the world. It was fascinating to see all sorts of representations of the COVID ball, depictions of George Floyd (see the Houston Chronicle and Die Zeit above). It was surprising to see creative concepts, seemingly unique, repeated in slightly different ways. Below, the Globe and Mail and Politico Europe use a tangled string to illustrate getting through COVID, while The Economic Observer and Politico Europe use an upward view of buildings and plane in the sky for very different stories.

This was the first year the competition was held virtually. So instead of newspaper pages spread out on tables, it was PDFs being opened on laptops. While the pages were all crisp and clear, no yellowing of print from pages pulled from the archives, some judges commented on how they felt certain entries would have hit them differently laid out in all their print glory. Instead of cups holding votes for Awards of Excellence or not it was computer tabs, with a virtual separator between those that got three votes and those that got four or more, which would then be up for medal discussion (an entry needs three of five votes to win an Award of Excellence). Instead of taking 15,000 steps over the day, those partaking were lucky to get in 1,500 sitting in their basements, in front of bookshelves, old cameras, bourbon. And instead of more than 10,000 entries, there were a little more than 3,000. If SND will have me between now and next year, I am determined to change that. After looking through pages every day, I know there are potential Awards of Excellence out there that weren’t submitted. Maybe medals.

The experience overall was worth its weight in gold medals. There were five this year. Here are a few more tweets with judges’ commentary from SND on some of the big winners.

I will use this soapbox to encourage people to support print media. I will argue here or there or anywhere, on a train or in the rain, that there is no media more powerful, with more impact, than print media. I encourage those from smaller newspapers to start thinking about next year’s competition. Put yourself out there. The vast majority of the entries were outstanding. Some rose above, and some rose even further. Even those that didn’t win still showed that the creative spirit is alive and well. So a shoutout to print designers everywhere. To illustrators (some of the illustrations this year were breath-takingly beautiful and powerful). To those who still put forth their best effort day in and day out, with fewer resources and less time. You’re all amazing. And I will bury this here. I was contemplating quitting this blog. I didn’t think there were enough people who cared about print media. I was having a hard time finding magical pages. But after seeing the emotion and passion at SND42, and the sheer volume of awe-inspiring entries, I’ve decided to keep plugging away. Sharing great designs when I see them. I can’t wait for SND43.

Looking back

These were three of the pages I submitted over two years to get recognition. Not on par with the stunning pages I saw this year, but I am proud of the work we did at the Guelph Mercury, with a circulation around 10,000 and a very small newsroom.

Coming soon: posts on my best in show and one on CanCon at SND42.

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