There are average newspaper pages and there are good newspaper pages. And there are almost unbelievably great newspaper pages. That is what the Society for News Design is all about. If you read this blog, you likely know all about SND by now. Over the course of a few days last week I was fortunate enough to be a facilitator in the SND42 Best of Print Design competition. I got to listen to some of the greatest minds in the visual design space talk about some of the best pages in the world throughout 2020, a tumultuous year to say the least. The judges spoke. They gave their awards and their medals. And for the most part I agreed with everything. In many cases their keen observations bowled me over. While I didn’t get to look at all of the more than 3,000 entries, I did try to look at as many as I could. I wanted to share some of the pages I was secretly rooting for, yelling at my muted computer when the team captain asked if anyone else had anything to say.

Here are a selection of pages from this year’s competition that blew my mind, mostly from the news category my team was judging, but not all. I haven’t included any of Canada’s best here, as that will be separate post.

De Volkskrant on George Floyd

This page is timely again after the conviction of Derek Chauvin on all charges, including two murder charges, in the death of George Floyd. This page certainly didn’t get past the judges. It was much talked about. It does so much, capturing the iconic image of George Floyd, but also movement it sparked in one illustration (by Noma Bar). And that’s just the beautiful illustration. The rest of the page is strong too. The words are small, deferential. They don’t take away from the image. This captures the power of print.

LA Times year in review

I hope to get the chance to talk more about this page with someone who was involved in it in a future post. But this was the first page that took my breath away. Not only do I find it to be such a striking image (illustration by Wayne Brezinka), it in itself is a celebration of print, with newspaper clippings pasted throughout. It looks like a crafting project, just better than any crafting project I’ve ever seen (though my daughter does some killer crafting).

Indigo’s disappearing sharks page

This page did so much for me. As I listened to the discussion as to whether it should be a medal contender, I found myself loudly voicing my opinions while muted (facilitators aren’t allowed to weigh in, but I did in spirit). I loved the text, the tear, the obvious shark that is not there, which was the point. It’s about disappearing sharks. The 3D effect. The colours. Despite being about a depressing topic, as many of the pages are (hence their power), the design made me happy.

Washington Post, RBG

I don’t need to say much about this one. It’s stunning. It’s powerful. It’s simple. It’s respectful. The silhouetted look is the focus. The words are small, and don’t take focus away. The earring and the collar. The slight but necessary hint of glasses. This page is more about the illustration (by Edel Rodriguez), but the respectful treatment of it makes it a complete package. They could have used a photo of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. They could have used a more traditional illustration. But neither would have the power that this did. I saw this one the day it came out and it struck me then just as powerfully as it did when up against the world’s best. Read more about it here.

New York Times, One Nation, Under Quarantine

When I saw the wall of grief page from the New York Times, I thought that was the pinnacle. It was so powerful. Could there be a stronger NYT page? Enter SND42, and One Nation, Under Quarantine. This page is so strikingly simple and complex at the same time. Playing off the flag, a symbol of unity. The Stars close together, separate but united. But not here. Quarantine drove Americans, drove everyone, apart. The stars normally so close now evenly spaced, physically, socially distancing. It’s such a symbolic visual.

Die Zeit, COVID’s impact

This page has a lot of text. It could almost be considered too grey. But the visual of the meteor tearing through the page changes that. Letters flying around. A disease like COVID wasn’t unexpected. It was predicted. Like we might be able to predict a meteor’s path. But we didn’t prepare. And thus the impact has been devastating, like this meteor tearing apart a piece of regular life, a newspaper. The meteor is tight to the text. With almost any other illustration it would be too tight. But that’s the point. It’s still burning through. The impact still being felt. And the text is still readable, so key to design. A page can be the most beautiful thing in the world. If the design affects readability, you’ve lost most of your readers.

The Star Tribune had so many great pages. It’s such a hub of design and creativity. So with pages on George Floyd and COVID-19 and the U.S. election, why did I choose one about the fair? Because it makes me happy. It was a tough year. There were so many big and hard stories. But when I saw this page (there are many just like it), I smiled. It brought out the kid in me. Not only is the illustration lovely (by Nuri Ducassi, whom I had the good fortune of working with at the Toronto Star), the page itself is just wonderfully designed. Simple, effective and fun.

Speaking of simple fun, these New York Times pages from its kids section are just that. Fun. And who doesn’t love the age-old debate about which is better (and which drools), cats or dogs. But I think we all know the answer. Feel free to share in the comments below, but really, do we need to? We know (wink, wink). Again, pages driven by brilliant and beautiful illustrations. But a great concept. And a smile.

LA Times, Will we ever kiss again?

Last but certainly not least, the kiss. Another LA Times page driven by an illustration, but what an illustration it is. This haunting image by Eddie Guy is beautiful. How else to explain it? It gives me chills. And it’s even more impactful now, I’d argue, more than a year after the pandemic was first declared. Vaccinations are rolling out, there is a sense that we could return to some version of normal, but it’s been so long. and it’s been so hard. The biggest loss in all of this, after the tragic lives of so many lives, is personal, human contact.

There were so so many more incredible pages. It was astounding to see so much creativity in one place. I have some that rival these above on my scale of favourites. There was just so much talent on display. But I will seal this one with a kiss.

I hope that SND42 will be the gift that keeps on giving. I plan to talk about the amazing work that came out of Canada, and with any luck I will talk to some creative types who played a role in some of the pages that got so much love in the competition.

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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By Brad Needham

Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was a towering figure, both in physical and societal stature. The husband of the longest serving monarch in British history. Married for more than 70 years to one of the most powerful woman in the world. Himself the longest serving royal consort in British history. While he retired from his royal duties in 2017, his stature didn’t fade. Prince Philip died two months shy of his 100th birthday.

Newspapers are often ready for the death of a significant figure. While nobody likes to think about or predict someone’s death, readers have come to expect information immediately. There has been a long practice, perhaps nearly as old as journalism itself, to prepare obituaries for key figures ahead of their deaths, particularly for anyone who could be at greater risk. So media organizations will have obituaries prepared, starting with “z-copy”, a.k.a., their history, so all that needs to be added are the new details, such as when and where the person died, any recent events or interesting information, and then refining as required. That allows the story to be posted very quickly, and then it can be refined later. But that’s the story. What about the design? Readers demand the story immediately. The design comes next.

In most cases, newspapers won’t have predesigned pages, unless something is imminent. In the case of Prince Philip, he had developed heart problems in his 80s, and was recently hospitalized. It’s possible media organizations had started to compile key photos. But it’s unlikely it went much further, though that very well might not be true of papers in Britain. While the Duke of Edinburgh was a significant figure around the world, particularly in Commonwealth countries, no where would his stature be larger than at home.

While media often struggles with just want to say about key figures when they die — do they mention Prince Philip’s racist comments and other offensive remarks over the course of his life? — the same is often not true in design. The design captures the gravity of the situation — or the gravitas of the person. While the display copy — either the headline or the deck — might capture some of the negative aspects of the person, it is generally left to the story to capture the nuances. The good and the bad.

Today newspapers around the world had some amazing front pages that did just that. It captured what he meant to so many. The good and the bad, of him and the monarchy. There will be more powerful front pages after his funeral. For today, I want to put a spotlight on front pages mostly from Britain, but some from other Commonwealth countries as well. I will let the pages do most of the talking, as that is the power of a great front page. It shouldn’t need much help.

I will start at home for me, with the National Post. It was the best cover in Canada, one of the best in the world today. And on days with big events, it often is. It is known for its bold design. It used the entire front page real estate and showcases a beautiful illustration by artist Kagan McLeod. A great use of white space and an emotional quote, played small, but powerfully. It’s entirely possible the National Post had this illustration ready to go already. If not, it’s even more amazing. In Canada, the announcement came with hours to go before deadline, so papers had a chance to give design more consideration.

British papers on the other hand would have had less time. But they all did well, which speaks to how committed print journalists still are to their craft. No surprise that the Guardian would have a powerful cover. A stately portrait, his name, and the dates he lived. Simple and effective.

The Daily Telegraph has similar play to the Guardian. Elegant photo, name, dates. And that’s all you need.

The Advertiser in Australia uses a classic photo of the prince and the Queen. The big headline, all caps, GOODNIGHT, MY PRINCE, captures the emotion. These are still human beings. They had a long marriage, many trials and tribulations. This page evokes nostalgia.

The Independent has a similar but slightly different approach. A black and white portrait, capturing a younger Prince Philip. A lovely page.

The Evening Standard went with a more recent photo. Capturing the now. It’s a beautiful portrait of man who lived a long, full life. A headline about his service. He was actively serving royal duties until 2017.

I chose this one for a different reason. The design is nice. But the Daily News also split the attention between Prince Philip and DMX, and many thought it should have been DMX getting these covers instead. The page has some issues, as it highlights the troubles of DMX, but doesn’t touch on any of the controversy around Prince Philip. But I respect that the paper, in New York, knows its audience. Readers expect DMX to get attention. And he should have. He was very influential. On any other day, he would have been the cover. And in many papers, maybe he should have been anyway.

There were plenty more worth celebrating for their creativity and power.

Expect more powerful covers after Prince Philip’s funeral. It will be a major event and the world will be watching. While many will watch it live, newspapers will do their best to capture the moment with a strong front page. Have thoughts? Share them below!

A compilation of partial covers by Raina Toomey

By Brad Needham

Newspaper design. There is not much more anonymous. Even the front page. Many magazines will list who designed the cover on or near the masthead. That is not standard practice in the newspaper world. In the past designers could compete for awards, but even those are disappearing. The Ontario Newspaper Awards dropped its design category (though I will urge them to bring it back here…). There is a presentation category that captures print and digital at the National Newspaper Awards. But other than the Society for News Design awards (still the pinnacle of print design awards), there isn’t much left. However, often those who get into design do so to be behind the scenes. So perhaps some don’t want to throw their hats into the ring of competition and have their names up in lights. Leave that to byline-hungry reporters (we thank you for your content).

But the role of this blog is to shine a spotlight on both the publications and, when possible, people behind the designs. In this post I speak to Raina Toomey from the Postmedia Production Centre in Hamilton. It is the primary print production centre for Postmedia. I have long heard Toomey’s name. And unknowingly, I have seen her work (because it’s so anonymous). It was only luck that I stumbled upon something designed by her when I was doing a post on COVID-19 papers. She was responsible for what was probably the page of the year, in at least Canadian newspapers, on the anniversary of the declaration of the pandemic, March 11, 2021.

Ottawa Citizen, March 11, 2021

I was happy to hear that she would be interested in talking to me about more of her designs. I love to look at a body of someone’s work, rather than one piece, to see themes and differences. I asked Raina some questions about her career in design. I found that she and I had a lot of similarities. We both started in editing. We both love simplicity in design. We both work in media production centres. Without further ado …

How did you get into newspaper design?
I studied print journalism in college because I loved writing and, at the very wise age of 19, decided it was journalism or teaching and I didn’t want to be a teacher. (I shake my head at myself now, of course.)

In my second semester of college, I started working part-time as a copy runner (essentially, a gofer) at the Ottawa Sun, took on freelance work for them and did my job placement there in the fourth semester as a reporter. That was when it firmed in my mind that I really hated reporting and talking to strangers at some of the worst points in their lives. I was hired as their TV editor, which involved a mix of interviewing, writing features and basic layout. That evolved into the new position of production editor for the Today section, laying out and copy editing the Sun’s arts and life pages. Being the Sun, that meant a lot of bells and whistles and splashy design.

Readers’ time is valuable. Effective newspaper design informs as much as it attracts.

Raina Toomey

From there, I moved to the Sun’s news rim as a copy editor, then to the senior slot editor, slotting and drawing the news and business pages.

After 17 years at the Ottawa Sun, I made the move to broadsheets and the Ottawa Citizen as a copy editor on the news desk. By the time I left the Citizen four years later, I was their A1 editor and had worked on a number of special projects, including design and being a builder of their content management system.

I transferred to Postmedia Editorial Services in Hamilton, where I am the production editor for the hub that produces the chain’s 10 major market publications (nine broadsheets, one tabloid). The position offers a lot of variety, and I’m somewhat of a jack-of-all-trades. My specialties involve developing efficient print workflows across the chain, newsroom technology, planning and newspaper design. I work on everything from day-to-day production – layout, editing, clearing pages, design of pages that break away from the ordinary – to the design and production of special coverage such as the Olympics and elections, to rolling out and training staff on our content management system and other technology.

What do you like about newspaper design? And what makes it different?
I love the flexibility of newspaper design, in that it goes beyond pure esthetics. Newspaper design demands a special skillset that blends news sense with creativity. It needs to draw the reader in, while remaining true to the subject matter. It must be more than visually pleasing; it has to be readable. Yes, use a pullquote, but only if it draws in the reader in a contextual way. Info boxes, numbers packages, sidebars all have to be treated as part of the whole and add value. Readers’ time is valuable. Effective newspaper design informs as much as it attracts.

Ottawa Citizen, March 28, 2020: a text-driven cover.

What was the most fun you have had with a design?
I think the most fun I’ve had with design is when I’ve been forced to make something out of nothing – where the art is lacking or of poor quality, but the story is important and needs to make a splash. I am not fond of using clipart unless there is no other option, so it is satisfying to devise a type attack or interesting play of lacklustre art that manages to make things pop.

Do you rely on one design principal more than others (white space, text as design, colour, cutouts, etc.)?

Ottawa Citizen, Jan. 30, 2021. A simple cover with just three headshots as art.

Simplicity is important to me. I like the conscious use of white space, as well as the judicious breaking of rules in limited instances. The Postmedia design has what some have called rigid rules – headline hierarchy, how and when colour should be used in text, no text on photos, no cutouts or close crops – but that is only for the day-to-day design. Sticking to the rules in the majority of situations adds more power and impact to a design when a decision is made to deviate from the rules.

Tell me about a design you loved that was rejected.
One paper had a lifestyles section front about wedding dresses. The main art was fairly small, and restricted to above the fold. I sized the art way up, so the model went from the top of the page all the way to the bottom, approved a close-crop and extended the train across the bottom of the page. It was stunning. The editor insisted the photo be sized back down so the entire gown could be above the fold.

I feel I’ve grown a lot as a designer and a journalist since my early days, and expect to learn more – and improve – in the years to come. If I don’t, that would be a sad state of affairs.

RAina Toomey

Now, in my opinion, above the fold/below the fold is outdated thinking, even when it comes to A1. First, the bulk of the circulation for most papers is based on home subscribers, not single-copy sales at the corner store or gas station. Secondly, someone who is going to pick up a paper along with their gas and lottery tickets will not be choosing their purchase as they would decide which tomato to buy at the grocery store – they want to buy that newspaper. Lastly, this was an inside section; by default, the reader would have to unfold the paper to even read it, and would see the dress in its entirety.

Are there any designers or publications other than those you have worked at that you are sure to look at?
I love the design of the National Post’s Weekend Post. It’s very magazine-like, and showcases the way great design can maintain a consistency in style while doing some pretty out-there design. Lovely.  

How do 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?
I don’t do a lot of looking back. I consider design a constantly evolving skill. What I did years ago is indicative of where I was at that point in my career, and that’s fine. I feel I’ve grown a lot as a designer and a journalist since my early days, and expect to learn more – and improve – in the years to come. If I don’t, that would be a sad state of affairs.

I do appreciate that technology has reached the point where the designer can touch all aspects of their creation – no sizing wheel, no getting camera-ready versions of images shot for paste-up, no painstaking close crop work with an X-Acto knife.

How is it different working in Hamilton vs. working directly in the newsroom? 
In some respects, working at a hub offers more variety, challenge and flexibility than working in a traditional newsroom. While our newsroom colleagues may feel that those at the hub are separate from them, and not as invested as they are in stories that matter to their readers, that is not the case in reverse. Many staff at the hub take pride in the work they do for “their” paper or papers and feel they are contributing in a meaningful way to the papers’ success. This past year of working from home has likely offered our colleagues a glimpse of what it is like to work outside the newsroom and still be part of the important work we do as journalists.

The logistics of working at a production hub are different, and that can largely be chalked up to technology and how economics have changed the business of presenting the news.

In past years, when every large newsroom had in-house designers, print design was as much a part of the discussion for special projects as the writing and photography. Now, that kind of start-to-finish collaboration often only occurs for digital presentation. It’s possible that some newsrooms consider print design to be outside their scope, since their paper is no longer put together in-house. It is also simply the way things are as we move more fully into the digital world.

Unlike traditional newsrooms of the past, the production hub has to balance creativity and workload. Where once a designer in a large newsroom might have a week or weeks (or longer) to create something spectacular, a designer at a hub has to work under much tighter time constraints and deal with a greater volume of pages. Some newsrooms try to involve the hub as much as possible, giving advance notice and filing early when they require something with flare. They may have suggestions or a vision, or they may just hand it over without offering guidance. Other newsrooms aren’t as aware of the time needed to make something sparkle, or face staffing constraints that don’t allow much turnaround time. Everyone everywhere has to do more with less.  

It might be like picking favourite family members, but if you had to pick a few favourite pages, what would they be and why?

Ottawa Citizen A1, Saturday, April 4, 2020

An example of the power of a type attack using shades of grey and a mix of Postmedia’s bold block line style font with the serif style we use for big numbers in display. The page also broke from style in that there was no main art, only a small close-crop of the now-familiar computer-generated image of the coronavirus. Saturday A1s usually are colourful, teaser-driven pages, so the calculated, drastic deviation from style served to emphasize the seriousness of the province’s message.

Ottawa Citizen A1, Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021

While I usually avoid using clip art whenever possible, this page presented a challenge in that the only art available was largely poor-quality headshots of the suspected serial killer and his victims, and those were used with the three-page feature inside. Andrew Duffy’s incredible piece strung together suspicious deaths, fires, shootings and rumours as police spent 30 years trying to get the evidence to convict a man who has always maintained his innocence. This design broke from style by using clip art of a smoking match (to convey the link to fires and a trail gone cold) and putting large, bold type for both the head and deck on the black background of the image.

Montreal Gazette, A10/A11, May 11, 2019

It’s difficult to separate politics from religion in Quebec. In a two-part series, Andy Riga looked at the intertwined history of two integral pieces of identity for many Quebecers. The first part ran May 11, 2019, and consisted of a piece that took some time to figure out – what would be the best way to present a narrative feature in a format similar to an illustrated timeline? If styled like a usual timeline, our sans infobody style, it would be dense and difficult to read at that length. I used archival images, special formatting derived from existing styles in our design and, my favourite, white space to make key moments in the timeline stand out.

Montreal Gazette, Reopening Canada package, A1, B1-B8, June 27, 2020

Every major-market paper in the chain ran a Reopening Canada package June 27, 2020. With a mix of local and shared content, the sections required a cohesive look that would tie everything together and say, “Here is something you need to read.” Our section squares are usually set solid colours reserved for standing sections. I created a special red square with a Maple Leaf watermark to use on the section front and smaller on each page in the section. Pages were limited to a maximum two stories, features or alternative story forms, every one labeled in red – not one of our usual accent colours – to indicate the specific economic sector, such as aerospace, retail, restaurants, arts and culture, etc … Each page featured a large pullquote beside the inside square, a style most often restricted to the OpEd pages.

Thanks, Raina! Thus ends the Q&A portion …

I agree with Raina on her choices, particularly the Grim Projections page. It uses text so boldly to send an important message. Stay home. That’s it. And as I said up top and in a previous post, I love the design on the anniversary of the pandemic declaration.

Here are a couple more I really dug from the samples she sent.

Ottawa Citizen, October 23, 2014

I love this one for three reasons I always go back to. It’s a big day, and nothing captures a big day like a powerful newspaper front page. It’s simple, which I always appreciate, but especially on big news days with emotional, sensitive content. The story is the story. The page needs to capture the gravity without taking away from it. It can be hard to not go too far on a design. And the strong image.

This is another design I like for being simple and informative. A good, big, bold headline. Clear throws to the inside. A helpful map. And again, this was about an important and sensitive topic, though a retrospective kind of look, rather than the day after coverage.

Many staff at the hub take pride in the work they do for “their” paper or papers and feel they are contributing in a meaningful way to the papers’ success.

Raina Toomey, on working outside a specific newsroom

There were so many others to choose from. Raina had a number of wonderful designs (some beautiful graduation pages, capturing and celebrating graduation in a pandemic in the Calgary area, and more), and I also very much appreciate her approach to and philosophy on design. We share so many similar views. Not only that, we both work in a similar environment. While the Postmedia Production Centre is part of Postmedia, it’s still outside the newsrooms, which creates a new dynamic with editors. The same is true at PMNA, though we are an outsourcer (that said, PMNA is owned jointly by three organizations, two of which we have done or still do layout and editing for: the Globe and Mail and Toronto Star). But even with a different relationship, outside the newsroom, Raina has found a way to shine (as have the editors at PMNA).

But a special thank you again to Raina Toomey. Thanks for continuing to give it your all in an industry that doesn’t value print design as it once did. The results are evident. And I know many still appreciate it, though maybe few as much as I do.

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).

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!