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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.