By Brad Needham
Newspaper design can be like a drug. A good page, your own or others, can leave you feeling elated. And leaves you wanting more. But what I have experienced lately, is like a good high (from someone who doesn’t know what an actual good high is!), the more greatness I see, the greater it needs to be to blow me away. When I first had the honour of being involved in the Society for News Design‘s 42nd creative competition in 2021, my breath was taken away a hundred times or more. Given a judge’s role, I would have been like, awards for everyone! A medal for you, and you, and you! I was nearly weepy by the end of it. After feeling the print world crumbling around me, I found myself in an oasis, damn near a utopia, of newspaper design.
There is still a page from that year’s competition that I can’t shake. This page from the Los Angeles Times gave me the feels.
By 2022, I had a new perspective. I heard the judges talk about what makes a page great, what elevates something from good to great. I was more critical that year, but still my breath was taken away quite often. And now, 2023, I feel even more discerning. The competition was back in real life, held at The New York Times building. For the first time, I found myself looking at some medals and asking, would I have given that a gold? But I am happy to say, there are still breathtaking pages. Despite being immersed in the best of the best newspaper pages in the world for three years, plus all the pages I look at on a daily basis, I find inspiration in some of the magical work still taking place. It’s partially because the work is next level, but it’s also because the field is shrinking. It is a dying art. The exceptional work shines even brighter.
There are newspapers who still care deeply. The Big 4 in the U.S. produce some of the most stunning work in the world. And it is seen in their results, either Awards of Excellence or Silver and Gold medals. The New York Times: 188 (!!); Washington Post: 122; Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minn.): 121; and a few places down, holding onto 6th overall, the Los Angeles Times: 44. Both The New York Times and the Washington Post have been named finalists for the World’s Best Designed Newspaper, along with Die Zeit and Weekendavisen (you will see more from these in the post about papers from around the world). The winner or winners will be announced Friday.
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I will give more play to the Big 4 publications in this post. But I can’t feature hundreds of pages. So I will pare down the winners and present some of my faves. And despite my exposure and, for better or for worse, higher standards, my opinion is still very humble. At these contests I am surrounded by design greatness.
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One key takeaway from this year’s competition was the value of art direction. As someone who mostly worked in smaller publications, I was, in effect, the art director, at least for the sections I handled. In the past couple of years I have started to wonder about pages that are driven almost exclusively by their illustrations. Are they great pages or great illustrations or both? Well, I’m told, this is where you can see the value of great art direction. A publication can’t get it so right so often and have it be so on brand without great art direction. So much of the credit for these pages goes to the art directors.
The New York Times
What can I say about the paper sometimes still known as the Old Gray Lady? Despite those functional daily news pages, The New York Times produces some of the most magical pages in the world.
First, one million. I remember seeing this page when it was published and being blown away. I still am.
And one can’t talk about NYT without mentioning its kids section. It is outstanding. Always. I sure hope it’s working, and that it is attracting younger readers, showing them the power of print media. The kids of New York are perhaps the best served child newspaper readers in the world!
While COVID isn’t behind us yet, there was less focus this year. Abortion, however, was in the spotlight, thanks to a groundbreaking decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Many papers produced powerful pages around this topic, and the Times produced some of the best.
Shootings and gun violence have also divided the U.S., and put it into the spotlight around the world. Most of the world doesn’t get it. It’s good to see some Americans, many, are also questioning. This page, all text, the same thing repeated, is so powerful.
I could go on and on. But I will leave you with just a couple more. And they will be political, because what is America right now if not a world political hotspot? Years after the election, it’s still Trump, it’s still Biden. Brace for many more pages with these two as the focus.
The Washington Post always delights. The Outlook and opinion pages are so regularly outstanding that even those have to be whittled down. The first, also marking the tragic COVID milestone of one million American deaths, followed by a slideshow of more strong opinion pages.
And a collection from the Outlook section.
I loved this page when I saw it last year. A simple but very smart illustration.
And of course they have fun, too. Here are some pages about things that aren’t breaking news, like books and food!
And weekends! I love this one. Not only is the illustration top level, the headline is fantastic. Kudos to the writer.
Star Tribune (Minneapolis, Minn.)
The Star Tribune might not have the same recognition as The New York Times and Washington Post outside of design circles or outside the U.S., but it is very much known as a heavyweight in the design world. But also, unlike some other big papers, it focuses on the news at home, a real local paper. That and incredible designs? It reminds me of a next-level Guelph Mercury, the paper where I cut my teeth in design. To be clear, the Star Tribune is several levels up, but its mission is close to my heart.
I will once again start with the one million milestone. How can they make little squares look so compelling? So devastating.
At the competition, I said there are two regular events that will always produce design awards. One is the power rankings for burgers in Los Angeles (see LA Times below) and the Minnesota state fair.
But as per usual, the Star Tribune offers much more than fair pages. This was one of my favourite pages from the competition (I had no clear favourite, as I have in the past two years). And like last year, I can’t say why.
The Olympic pages by the Star Tribune were perhaps the best in the world.
And one more to leave you with. A page that is so Star Tribune.
Los Angeles Times
I’m a sucker for the Los Angeles Times. Maybe it’s because of the kiss page above. Maybe that hooked me. Despite having fewer wins than the three above, I find so many of their pages so striking and enjoyable. It is one of the papers clearly benefiting from some of the most brilliant art directors the world. So many of the pages are driven by outstanding illustrations. And one thing they do better than most is food. Which brings me to … burgers.
And this page. I think it’s just beautiful. When it comes to pure beauty, few publications move me like the Los Angeles Times.
And another driven by a beautiful, touching illustration, but one that seems clearly designed for the soft yet prominent headline treatment.
This stunner was a silver medal winner. It just gets cooler the more you look at it.
And here are a few more. Some that are just so bright and happy, and of course a couple more food pages.
And of course there are many other great publications doing solid design work. While the pool is shrinking, these publications still rise to the top. There are so many more incredible pages from other publications, but I can’t show them all. There were thousands of entries. Here are the last few I will show, starting with this sharp page from the Kansas City Business Journal (part of the American City Business Journals, which tied for 10th overall in terms of awards).
Anyone who follows my blog or Instagram knows I love The Villages Daily Sun. There are few newspapers that have a more distinctive style, and one that so clearly connects with its readers.
Next are a couple of strong pages on the topic of guns, one of the bigger topics, and, sadly, likely a bigger topic in next year’s awards. These are from the Asbury Park Press and the Boston Globe.
And last, but definitely not least, a few more brilliant pages, starting with fun illustration from the Philadelphia Inquirer, two from the San Diego Union Tribune, the Knox News Sentinel, Bergen Record, San Antonio Express-News and USA Today.
I would like to say print is alive and well, but it is struggling. Newspapers are closing all the time, resources are becoming more limited, revenue sources are drying up. But that is what makes this competition even more extraordinary. In the face of all of this, there are so many still striving for greatness, still working to give their readers more than just stories on paper. They are giving them an experience. The print experience.
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