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).

My blog is about print. It is about celebrating creativity and innovation in print journalism as cuts imperil its future. But as a 20-year journalism vet who has seen and experienced many layoffs, and survived, I feel it is incumbent on me to honour those who are facing cuts right now. It was announced today that HuffPost Canada and HuffPost Quebec are shutting down, cutting 23 jobs. The employees filed for union certification in February, just two weeks ago. So this sort of goes against what this blog stands for, being always positive, but this is a big deal. And the positivity comes in celebrating the great work by this staff over the years.

Most of my social network is journalists or formal journalists. And news like this spreads so fast. It’s like a loss in the family. We mourn. We rally. We support. Nearly my entire Twitter feed is taken up with tweets about this one topic.

So this blog is about newspaper covers. In my first post I said no one remembers the front page of a website on big days. But I want people to remember this one. I will even review the design. It’s white space. Lots of white space, and in the middle lies an important message. And it’s different. It’s not what you’re expecting. Nor should you be. Newspapers pages are meant to provoke emotion. News websites are generally designed to convey information. So this site sticks out. Sadly for BuzzFeed, its starkness probably garnered more attention than they would have liked it to. Reporters were surprised to find out the site was shutting down. They were met with this page. The page makes a statement on the state of journalism and issues with ownership and the sad state of the industry. Another reason to mark this is that eventually, unlike a print page, it will be gone. And no one will see what many saw, when they learned the site was shut down. So here it is.

The layoff process was also unfortunate. I have learned from mistakes and from what I have done to make the layoff process more human. Using a password of spring is here is unadvisable. Layoffs happen. They will continue to happen, especially in journalism. But we can do better. Consider even the smallest of details.

While it was in a different space from my focus in journalism, and especially different from my focus on this blog (it was meant to be a print v. digital space), I want to acknowledge the incredible work done by HuffPost Canada staff.

There is so much more to say, and I may update this post. But for now, I will now turn this space over to some in-the-moment tweets. In the meantime, as tweeted by Brian Bradley at the Toronto Star: “Hug a journalist day. And then hire them.”

Tweet about the importance of journalism. And why these jobs matter. And some tweets.

By Brad Needham

Behind every successfully designed newspaper page is a talented designer. And often a slew of other people. As part of this blog, I plan to feature designers. I want to find out what makes them tick. What gives them that creative spark. Newspaper pages can be like art. Sometimes designers have oodles of time to bring these designs to reality. But sometimes it’s a day. Or less. Either way, I applaud them.

I hope to run a profile every month, of either an established designer with a deep portfolio, or an emerging designer, with a few great portfolio pieces and a boatload of potential.

In the first instalment, I bring you the great Tammy Hoy, a Canadian Press and Pagemasters North America designer. Disclaimer: I am the managing editor at Pagemasters and I have worked with Tammy for eight years. That is not necessarily why I’m featuring her, but it’s why I know very well the depth of her talents. But I will be writing what I know! So early on, dear reader, you may notice people with connections to me! I hope to find designers to feature from further afield as well, but Tammy is a great choice regardless. A quick look at her website, tammyhoy.com, anyone could quickly see a whole lot of visually mastery.

In these features, I will do a Q&A, and let the designers do most of the speaking. So I will stop talking for now. Without further ado …

A collage of newspaper pages by Tammy Hoy.
A screen grab from tammyhoy.com showing designs by Tammy Hoy.

Designer profile: Tammy Hoy, Pagemasters North America/The Canadian Press

How did you get into newspaper design?
It was a series of unlikely but fortunate events. Back in 1994 I was studying Illustration and design at Sheridan College and my roommate mentioned a job ad that he saw for freelance newspaper design work that was posted in the wrong department at our college (That department being animation and not design). I was really excited and I hoped it might be a great opportunity to get some real-life work experience while still at college. I called the number on the ad and they asked me if I could make it to 1 Yonge St. within the hour. I told them I could be there in two.

 I was so nervous. In my interview I was told that they needed a front-page illustration for a new section on technology; and they needed it by tomorrow! It was a sink or swim situation. I told them, I’ve got this.

It was a super exciting opportunity, but the worst part of it, ironically was the technology at the time. Envision this, I had to produce an illustration overnight using one of the first versions of Photoshop. I had no scanner because at the time they were a couple thousand dollars. We did not have cellphones so I couldn’t transfer any kind of image or reference material to my computer. I literally had to draw something with a mouse and make it look high tech. And on top of all this, it would take an hour to apply a filter. Layers were not even invented yet! Needless to say I did my best with what I had. And they liked it!

I can certainly see that I’ve grown but they’re not bad considering this was the ’90s, an era when rotating logos with flames were in still in fashion.

 In the coming months I completed several of the front pages for this section and invested in a scanner so that I could add some imagery to some of my future art. I loved every minute of it. I continued on that year to complete my degree in Illustration and Design at Sheridan College.

That same year my mum saw a job ad in the Toronto Star looking for an artist to work in the newspaper industry. I jumped on it. I started out in the graphics department at The Canadian Press and later began creating full-page newspaper designs, motion graphics and various other artistic material for Pagemasters North America, a subsidiary of The Canadian Press.

What do you like about newspaper design?
I like that once you build a good working relationship with your editors the sky is the limit in terms of what you can create. Within the confines of the newspaper’s style there are so many unique opportunities to express yourself. 

The goal being to work with the editor to create something a little unique that also goes well with the story. It’s also rewarding to meet extreme deadlines because you get to see your work published the next day or a few days from the day you put it together. There really is no time to fuss over things or overthink.

I love it because it’s also a beautiful collaboration between typography and art. The trick being to combine both, to create something really special.

What advice do you give when teaching people about design?
Think outside the margins and use white space to your advantage.  While margins are there to maintain consistency, you don’t always want your page to be completely bound by a grid. Fronts and special feature pages are a great opportunity to go outside the lines a little. The best pages are ones that surprise you.

I’m in my happy place when I have lots of room for art.

Play with the space to create a flow. Your eye should travel through the page elements, typically top to bottom. Think about things like the crop of a photo. Would an extreme vertical or extreme horizontal work better?  Cutting out a photo is a great way to add interest to a page. Mixed media can also be really interesting. Adding hand-painted art, collages, art with different shapes are all great ways to deviate from your standard rectangle.

Do you rely on one design principle more than others (white space, text as design, colour, cutouts, etc.)?
I really think a good page will make use of many elements, but if I had to pick only one thing, I would say I prefer designs with larger graphical elements. If you are able to push some of your text to the next page take advantage of that and make your art big. Make your headlines pop, use that white space to your advantage. Add some cutouts. I’m in my happy place when I have lots of room for art.

Tell me about a design you loved that was rejected.
I designed a front page made up entirely of different woodgrain. I loved it! It had fine grain, big grain, coloured grain, all running every which way and just this very small little headline positioned over top.  I was a little disappointed when they decided not to run it but hey you move on. You win some. You lose some. That’s what it’s all about.

How do you feel now about the first handful of pages you were proud of? Still love them? Wonder what you were thinking? Wistful for times gone by?
Haha, it’s really not a fair comparison when you consider the technology of today versus the technology of 1994. Just for fun I dug up some of my first illustrations and pages. I can certainly see that I’ve grown but they’re not bad considering this was the ’90s, an era when rotating logos with flames were in still in fashion. My first page entitled “A journey of discovery” is very apt. Life sure is about learning and improving as you go.

What would you say is the biggest change you’ve noticed since you started designing (new rules, time, etc.)?
I would have to say it’s the technology. When I started at The Canadian Press none of us working there even had an email address. Can you imagine? The company was super excited because they had just upgraded to colour computers and shortly after that they upgraded to 28.8 baud modems. That’s right, we were using dial-up connections to send graphics back and forth from home to work.

When it came time for the yearly federal budget we would travel to Ottawa and lug mountains of equipment to produce graphics. We had giant tube screen monitors tied to dollies and full-sized hard drives packed up in crates on wheels. We would show up at 6 a.m. to set everything up! The cleaners would be vacuuming around us as we transmitted the files back to Toronto.

Today the material is released digitally and graphics are created on the fly from home or from the office. The speed at which photos, graphics and pages are created has increased exponentially and they’re available on the web almost instantly. Pages are built in databased systems so they can be edited,  proofed and sent to print at lightning speed.

How do you design when there is no obvious art?
This is a great question. Having great art with a story is awesome but having mediocre art or no art can sometimes be a lot more fun!  It’s the perfect time to turn a negative situation into an opportunity.

If I am short on time I will sometimes have a look at stock art. Rather than just picking something generic and slapping it on to my page, I try to create something new by combining several pieces of stock art or by playing it up with some creative typography. For a page on old games becoming popular again, I used various pieces of stock art combined with some of my own hand-drawn elements to create a scene depicting a game of croquet with the headline displayed through the wicket.

 For a local story on a new intersection where all the art galleries were moving to, I decided to create something from scratch. I took my phone outside and photographed the street sign at an intersection outside. I came back to the office, cloned out the street names in Photoshop and carefully imposed the new ones in. It was something unique and went really well with what the story conveyed.

So draw something, pick up your camera, go outside and shoot something. There really are so many options and it can be a lot fun to try something new.

It might be like picking favourite family members, but if you had to pick up to three favourite pages, what would they be and why?
That is hard but here you go:

Tarnished Gold
This was a page on the spectre of Harvey Weinstein haunting the Golden Globes. Instead of running a typical photo of Weinstein I felt the page would have more impact if I drew just an outline of him and displayed it as a shadow.  I used a complementary gold colour to represent the Golden Globes. The little profile pictures at the top also draw the reader in. I felt this was a good way to illustrate a sensitive topic.

Donald & me (front and spread, Yes I’m trying to squeeze an extra page in here)
I really like this package  because of the graphical elements. You really can’t miss the stars and stripes when it comes to Donald Trump, so I used them to guide your eye through the feature without (hopefully) overpowering the pages. I also made the decision on the front to make the message of the story larger than Trump himself. Part of being a designer is to remain objective. 

Orange wine
This is one of my favourite pages because the wine looks like it’s jumping right out of the glass and almost off the page. There is so much movement and colour.  Working the display text into the splash was a challenge but I am happy with the end result.

Thanks, Tammy! And now a couple more that I love

When I was perusing Tammy’s website (did I mention Tammy has a website? And not just with newspaper designs) it brought back a lot of memories. All of these pages I’d seen come to life in my time at Pagemasters. I agree with all of her choices. The Trump package is amazing. The orange wine splashing around the page. But since I am supposed to celebrate design, I wanted to share a couple more that I loved for various reasons.

The Secrets of Wonderland page has always left me in awe. I mean, sure, the art is great. A perfect starting point. But having the text come in around those fingers, making it look three dimensional is gold. It’s also a bold use of a cover. One article, one monster piece of art.

The Where to shop next page speaks to me for a different reason. I have long been a major fan of the Virginian-Pilot. This is a page that just sticks so true to the Pilot’s design philosophy, I thought it needed to be called out. As an outsourcer, Pagemasters is occasionally and misguidedly criticized for shoddy work from those who don’t actually see what we do. All these pages prove otherwise, but this one is so close to the flavour of the Pilot, its long and storied history of design that I wanted to shout out Tammy for capturing it. You wouldn’t be able to tell it apart from a page that ran in 2011 or 2015. It just screams Pilot. So I shout Tammy’s praises from the rooftop. And to boot, a bold headline, fun art treatment, colourful. The pictures lead the eye all the way down the page.

If you are a designer or know of a designer who wants to be featured, click here to send me an email!

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.

Screenshots of various papers on big days. On big days, front pages can become historical touchpoints.

By Brad Needham

While some people have started taking screenshots of websites on big days, nobody is going to remember what the home page of the New York Times or Globe and Mail looked like on the night/day Donald Trump was elected. More so, most don’t care. But the front page of the newspaper? Many will remember. Many will seek it out later to see how it was played. Same for other major events. People in Hartford will remember the Harford Courant cover on September 12, 2001. People around the U.S. will remember the covers of their papers when Barack Obama won a historic victory.

There is something about a newspaper front page. They are a reference point for history. So much so that the Freedom Forum Institute is collaborating with more than 2,000 newspapers around the world on its front page gallery. Every day they post front pages of the day, and only for the day. However, going back as far as Sept. 11, 2001, 9/11, they have compiled key front pages from monumental days: 9/11, Donald Trump and Barack Obama’s presidential victories, the Charlie Hebdo attack, Osama bin Laden’s death, and so on. The pages are from events “that are considered of historical significance and fit its educational mission.”

Three newspaper front pages on the day Donald Trump was acquitted again.
These three covers, The Sunday Telegraph, USA Today and The Philadelphia Inquirer, on the second acquittal of Donald Trump on impeachment charges. The U.S. papers went big. The Telegraph not so much.

Acquitted. Again.

Most recently, and the news hook if you will, was Trump’s latest acquittal. It was both a more and less historic day than his first acquittal on impeachment charges. It happened on a Saturday. Thankfully for American readers Sundays are still big publishing days. In Canada, most of the front pages from big Saturday news would come on Monday. In the examples above, two of the headlines are similar (USA Today and the Philadelphia Inquirer), both big and both use acquitted. Another not included said “Acquitted. Again”. Big bold words. The other, from the Telegraph in the U.K., shows how a non-U.S. paper played it. It didn’t get nearly the play it did in the American or even North American, media. Just another front page story.

I am always amazed at how these pages come together. While the conceptualizing for some, like elections, can start well in advance, for other events, it’s a mad dash to the finish, like the covers for September 12, 2001, (or for some papers, September 11 as they rushed to put out special editions or put out their afternoon or evening editions. The Guelph Mercury (RIP) tore up its cover to replace it with a 9/11 cover. As the story goes, it was so rushed that the turns from the stories that were on the cover originally still ran). I feel fortunate that I have been able to work behind the scenes on a lot of big days. I’ve worked too many elections to remember, but I do remember some. Obama was memorable. Trump was even more so, only because it was so tight and surprising. While papers always have contingency plans for election covers, I would wager most papers, like the Toronto Star, had a “Hillary Clinton wins” design firmly planted on the page for much of the night, with a Trump victory on the pasteboard.

There are a few things I find notable about big day newspaper front pages. Here are a few things I love.

Headlines: Big and short

Big events can be a headline writer’s dream … or nightmare. Often a big front page headline is 72 points. Smaller for most non-tabloid papers. But on big days the font size isn’t just bumped up a few points, it often explodes. 100 points. 200 points. And the bigger the font the smaller the headline in terms of words. Now instead of seven or eight words, you get two or three. The bigger the event, the fewer words you get to capture it for posterity. While some of these are tragic stories, I want to note the work by creative headline writers and designers who can create these packages and that capture the moment. The team that puts these pages together recognize the importance of what they’re doing. Some examples, and they may seem simple, but the words have to be just right:

OH-BAMA!
It was a historic day. Americans elected their first Black president. Here are some of the headlines: Virginian-Pilot, Obama; Critica, Historica; The Commercial Appeal, YES HE DID; Philadelphia Daily News, New York Times and The Honolulu Advertiser (and more for sure), OBAMA; Kansas City Star, HISTORY. And, OH-BAMA!, Orange County Register. Lots of Obama, lots of history, lots of yes he can or did … And all beautifully played with strong, emotive art, and other key elements.

9/11
Some papers came out that day, some the next. The common theme was shock, anger, sadness. Here are some headlines: The Arizona Republic, TERROR; The Oakland Tribune, Terrifying; The San Diego Union-Tribune, NATION IN ANGUISH; Hartford Courant, ACT OF WAR; Chicago Tribune, ‘Our nation saw evil’; The New York Times, U.S. ATTACKED. There were some outliers, such as the Washington Post: Terrorists Hijack 4 Airliners, Destroy Word Trade Center, Hit Pentagon; Hundreds Dead.

Capitol riot
What started as a fiery protest turned into a riot at the U.S. Capitol, when an angry mobbed stormed the building. Here are some of the headlines: Arizona Republic, PRO-TRUMP MOB INVADES CAPITOL; Anchorage Daily News, Pro-Trump mob storms Capitol; Tampa Bay Times, UNDER SIEGE.

I love that despite being hundreds or thousands of kiliometres apart there is often such similar language from paper to paper. Repetition of big, powerful, emotive words. Terror. Victory. Siege. History. On their own the words wouldn’t mean much. That is where the rest of the design comes in. One, two or three words. A poweful photo. A deck. All of the sudden a quick glance can tell the story. I think it’s magical.

The art of design: the photo

Iconic front pages are often made iconic by iconic photos. (Don’t tell the former editor from the Toronto Star that I said iconic three times in one sentence. I will be blackballed from the industry.) Those who choose the pictures deserve some props as well. It’s not an easy task most days, but on days of historical significance it is an even greater responsibility. Even on days when the art essentially chooses itself, it can be a painstaking process. Do we show the planes crashing into the building? Do we show show the Turkish police officer carrying little Alan Kurdi’s body? It’s an excruciatingly hard decision some days. And in print, once the paper hits the press, the decision is irrevocable.

The Boston Marathon bombing was a good example of a major story and of art choosing itself. When it happened, newsrooms started buzzing (I was in one and I remember it well). Images were flowing in. There were lots. The main image was replaced and replaced. Until the image came in. Rather than one caught by a witness cellphone, it was by Boston Globe photographer John Tlumacki. Not all papers chose to run it, but many, maybe even most, did. It captured the panic. The moment. A runner on the ground. Police with guns drawn. Smoke. The kind of photo rarely captured by an amateur photographer. One captured by a newspaper professional.

Two of the three papers above took a similar approach. The big headline. Terror. Big photo. Less information. The Virginian-Pilot has a long and storied history, and is one of the most recognized papers in the world for its incredible design. I love that it’s not afraid to reduce the size of its flag to give more pop to the content. It’s bold. The Washington Post played it straight. More information, less about the design. As newspapers get smaller being able to blow out your cover on one story still happens, but it’s a much bigger investment than it once was. We might see more covers like the Post’s, but some papers are still going big. And I will celebrate them as I see them (I will write more about this in a future post). Being able to turn around a front page that captures a key moment in history at a glance, while under pressing deadlines, is an incredible feat, pulled of by teams of passionate editors and designers, and it happens all over the world.

Here are a few of the amazing pages from big events. I don’t think I need to say anything more. The designs say it all. Credit to the papers in flags, and to the Freedom Forum Institute, which has kept these pages easily accessible for the public to see.

A look inside an edition of a Society for News Design Best of Newspaper Design books.

By Brad Needham

For years people have been saying it. Print is dead. Newspapers are dying. Perhaps the end is nearing, but newspapers are not dead yet. And as long as they’re around, I want to celebrate those making an extra effort. Print design, newspaper design, has shaped my career. It’s a passion. There is not much like it, so I, for one, want it to survive as long as possible. They’ve long been sending out a please resuscitate message, and I’m happy to do newspaper CPR as long as necessary.

Where it all began (for me)
In 2003, fresh out of out university, I had just lied my way into a job in Fort McMurray, Alberta. Am I a good designer? I taught design at Mount Royal as a TA, I said. It wasn’t completely untrue. I landed the job, and thus I packed up and moved to northern Alberta in February to start my first daily newspaper job at the Fort McMurray Today.

It was there I stumbled on some books called The Best of Newspaper Design by the Society for News Design. It changed my life. The designs inside were spectacular. Awe inspiring for a young aspiring designer. No longer did I want to be a photographer and certainly not a sports reporter (sorry, dad). I wanted to do that. As I learned more about the Society for News Design (SND) I discovered they were the preeminent design society. The best designers in the world were competing to get into this book. New York Times, El Mudo, Virginian-Pilot, Boston Globe, Toronto Star. I was hooked.

I took these books everywhere (including to Red Deer when I left the paper in Fort McMurray … ssshhh). On vacations, to the cottage, on the bus. When other people were reading novels on the dock, I had my big cumbersome SND books, new sticky notes flagging inspirational designs being added frequently. Every time I did a big design, I was pretty proud. I look back on many of them now with less pride. But I was learning. At the Red Deer Advocate, the Woodstock Sentinel-Review, the Barrie Examiner (RIP). And then I got to the Guelph Mercury, the little paper that could — and did. I was offered a role overseeing the Here section, a feature section focusing on interesting local people and places. I was given time to conceptualize, assign, design. My managing editor was incredibly supportive of my ideas, even if they seemed bizarre on … paper.

That’s how it happened. Years after discovering the Best of Newspaper Design books, collecting dust on a book shelf in a northern Alberta newsroom, after dozens, maybe hundreds of pages drawn, I decided to enter. As a lark. Weeks passed. Nothing. Until one day a note popped into my inbox from SND. I had been recognized for my features portfolio. My heart was pounding. I jumped out of my desk and stormed into my boss’s office as if my house was on fire. I didn’t knock. “I … won an SND. I won!” I could barely breathe.

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I submitted five pages. One of those in a few weeks’ time would be in Best of Newspaper Design 28. It was beyond my wildest dreams. To be in these books I used for inspiration. After that I was handed the keys to a full redesign of the Mercury. I was told I could redesign an entire fairly major Canadian newspaper. One of the country’s oldest. I was humbled. With that behind me, I kept chugging along. I submitted a portfolio the next year. I thought it was stronger. But nothing. It was a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, I thought. Winning an SND award. Except it wasn’t. I won again a year later for a news page, based on the redesign. My managing editor allowed me to use all the front page real estate for a design idea. Best of Newspaper Design 30. And I won again two years later, Best of Newspaper Design 32, working with a great designer, Diane Shantz, at the Waterloo Region Record (but for a Guelph Mercury page — the industry was starting its contraction as the Mercury’s page production was brought into the Record. A sign of things to come, and why great newspaper design should be celebrated now more than ever).

A changing landscape
That was in the early 2010s. Print advertising started on a steady decline. Stories were available online for free. Newspapers, once a licence to print money, weren’t as profitable (but still doing well relatively speaking). But as revenues dwindled, newspapers started cutting staff. Some adopted a “good enough” policy (it’s true, but I won’t say who said it). It was the idea that readers don’t care about design. They don’t care if a photo is beautifully shot by a professional photographer. A handout picture would do.

Perhaps the end is nearing, but newspapers are not dead yet. And as long as they’re around, we should celebrate those making an extra effort.

Even by 2010, newspapers were in decline. A Pew Research Center report said half a dozen U.S. newspapers had closed down the previous year. Alarm bells were ringing. But we hadn’t seen anything yet. A report out of the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina published in 2020 said about a quarter of all papers in the U.S. had closed in the past 15 years. And things aren’t any better in Canada. A story in the Toronto Star last year said 50 community newspapers closed over a period of six weeks. Six weeks. Compared to just over 200 in the previous 12 years. Three newspapers I worked at have closed, the Guelph Mercury, Barrie Examiner and Prince George Free Press. I can’t even begin to explain how much I learned in these roles, and what those papers meant to their communities.

To make a short story long, there are very few people left who get days or even several hours to put a section together, to conceptualize design. To sketch out designs on little yellow sticky notes, as I did at the Waterloo Region Record, and hand them to a designer to implement. I have been fortunate in my career. Awards like the Ontario Newspaper Awards no longer even have a print design category (I won once, received two other nominations and had the privilege of being a judge one year). But because I have been fortunate, I now want to celebrate those who are still doing it. Still producing kick ass designs, like the Toronto Star, Globe and Mail, Spokesman-Review and so on. And I will look at these papers and more to find out why they’re still investing. Hopefully they can inspire future aspiring designers to aim a little higher.

Words matter. They always have. In design, they don’t matter any less. The beautiful thing about organizations like the Society for News Design is that when they look at pages and judge in their Best of Newspaper Design competition, a page has to be more than just pretty. It has to work as a whole package. The words. The design. The white space, or lack thereof. But what about pages that don’t have art? Without words … creatively designed words … the page would be relegated to Old Gray Lady status. Fine if you’re the New York Times. Not so if you’re the East Bay Times of Walnut Creek, California.