By Brad Needham

In 1999, I started journalism school at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Alberta. I had big plans. National Geographic photographer. Maybe foreign correspondent in war-torn countries. By the time I graduated in 2001, everything was on track. Except the job. In 2002, I set up a meeting on the other side of the country with a well-known Canadian photographer. Maclean’s, here I come, I thought. My best friend, C.J., and I set off on a road trip. Thousands of kilometres, one week, and a 1991 Chevy Sprint Turbo. Bubbles. And now I ask you to come along. Jump in the way-back machine, imagine yourself in a sky blue Sprint Turbo (the Turbo is worth mentioning every time. Every. Time. Just ask C.J.’s brother), and join me on my cross-country, 20-year journalism lookback journey. I don’t like to celebrate myself often, but I also don’t leave my profession often. After this, I will return to regularly scheduled broadcasting in this blog by focusing on designers still in the biz, and those who are lightyears more talented than I am. I peaked in 2010 (there might have been a higher peak, but the journalism world was having none of it, as it started to contract around this time).

Anyway. Bubbles. The journey began in Calgary. A couple of provinces in between, mostly fine, and then Ontario. Many routine police stops later (driving late at night with Alberta plates in Ontario) and almost no time to sleep, 36 hours later in total, we made it. I had my meeting. I brought my best stuff. I was proud. The verdict? Some potential. He loved the photos later in my portfolio, and said about the one for which I nearly had my head run over by race horses: “you were just there.” Yes, I was. And it was a damn fine photo (if I ever find my pre-digital portfolio, I will add the pic here). Alas, maybe photography wasn’t my path.

Enter Fort McMurray. The daily newspaper, the Today, offered me a job as an editor/designer. I moved up there (on a map, as the Friendly Giant would say, look up, look waaaaay up). It was there, as I have mentioned a few times in this blog, that I discovered the Society for News Design’s Best of Newspaper Design books. And I found my new love. Newspaper design (in case the book title didn’t get you there).

But the city was small (and cold) and the bugs were so, so big (when hot). So I went to test my writing chops in Red Deer, Alberta at the Advocate. Less than a year later, I was off to the promised land: Ontario. First at the Woodstock Sentinel-Review, then to the Barrie Examiner (RIP), then to the paper that firmed up my love for design (because someone told me I was good at it. Spoiler: it was SND), the Guelph Mercury (RIP). I was proud of some of my work in Woodstock and Barrie. Even Fort McMurray. Looking back, pre-Barrie work wasn’t as good as I thought it was at the time. But the Mercury made me. I was given so much freedom and time by my mentor and boss, the legendary Phil Andrews. I oversaw the Here section, a weekend features section all about Guelph. It was for this section that I won my first Society for News Design award, and still the one I’m most proud of as it was for a portfolio of work.

Those are three pages I think were part of my portfolio. I know “Getting corked” was, as it was the one in the book! I made the book (sitting in my soon-to-be-former office, so no pics available). The book that started me down this path. It was a dream come true. I even was fortunate enough to attend SND Boston where I picked up this fashionable … tote bag.

I then had the good fortune (with my newfound design street cred) to be asked to redesign the Mercury, from top to bottom. This was no refresh. I was even tasked with redesigning the flag. That is quite an honour. And scary as hell. Thanks to the Virginian-Pilot (at the time the best designed paper in North America, maybe the world, imho) and the Star-Tribune for the inspiration. Especially to the kind soul at the Pilot who sent me a box full of print copies to help me get further inspired. I was very pleased when the first issue went out (below) and almost all the feedback was positive. That’s almost unheard of! People hate change. But they appeared to like this. To this day, this is one of my proudest career accomplishments.

First day of the new Mercury.

Two years after my first SND award, I won again, this time for a front page that I was given full freedom on, the fifth anniversary of the major blackout that swept through Ontario and much of the northeastern U.S. When I designed it, my boss said he looked forward to seeing that page in the next SND book. And much to my surprise, he was right.

Shortly thereafter, I moved on to the Waterloo Region Record. And shortly thereafter after, so did production of the Mercury. It was a sign of things to come in the industry (and this blog post). But I continued to work on the Mercury from the Record. At the Record I continued designing, but also moved into a very basic art director-type role. I had a vision, drew it poorly on a small yellow sticky note and handed it off to one of the Record’s great designers, Tania Praeg-Geddes and Diane Shantz. And wouldn’t you know it. Two years after “All the lights went out,” with the help of the great Diane, we did it again. We earned the Mercury its fourth SND award in five years (it won another for a page produced by again soon-to-be-former colleague, now at The Canadian Press then at the Mercury, Kate Hopwood). This time the page likely won mostly for Diane’s brilliant illustration. It was much better than the hairy legs I drew on my sticky note. 🙂

Then came the email from the Toronto Star. They had an opening. I answered the call. I did some work I was proud of at the Star, but my heavy design days were over. Sitting at another bank of desks was a team of designers, whose entire job was to design covers. But I am happy to say I got to do some front pages for what is or was (depending on who you talk to) Canada’s largest daily circulation newspaper. The one on the right below isn’t a super fancy design, but it was my first A1 at the Star. So it’s special to me. I loved my time at the Star. But, as previously mentioned, the industry was contracting.

I was laid off and I moved to Pagemasters North America. It was eight glorious but mostly design-less years as a manager, overseeing a team of incredible editors, helping them grow and develop. So I still had a hand in others’ designs. Even super designer Tammy Hoy occasionally asked for my advice. Five of those years were spent overseeing the Star after they outsourced to Pagemasters North America (see, the Mercury was a sign of things to come in the industry and this post).

And now I depart marking what is likely the end of my journalism journey, at least as an active participant. For now. Anything is possible, but I am excited for what lies ahead. I know I have been so fortunate in this industry. Or as some would say, unfortunate. I made it 20 years. I lived through some not as lean times. I was blessed with opportunities and support. The Mercury was an incubator. It launched many to greatness. As I start looking back, I look ahead. I hope to be able to blog more, and showcase print design talent from around the world, from those who are sticking it out in this industry and doing outstanding work. I will do it here, and hopefully even more often as I will need my print design fix, and on my Instagram. Until then, a journalism cliche …

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By Brad Needham

When I got access to all the entries to the Society for News Design best in print newspaper design competition, I was like a kid in a candy store. It was such a delight to see some of the best pages from around the world. But as a proud Canadian (slightly dampened by our slow progress on COVID-19 vaccinations, particularly for essential workers), I quickly searched for Canadian entries. I was both tickled to the see the incredible creativity that flowed from home, but also a little saddened to see there was little variety in entrants. Lots of entries. Very few titles. Dominated by the Globe and Mail, a selection from the Toronto Star and some from Le Devoir.

When I entered the contest in 2007 and 2009, I entered as a designer for the now-shuttered Guelph Mercury. We had a circulation of just over 10,000 at the time, if I recall correctly. We were the little engine that could. Sadly I didn’t see that this time. Two of Ontario’s design heavyweights (despite being relative lightweights in circulation), the Mercury and Barrie Examiner, have both closed. Other papers are being done in internal or external production centres. To be very clear this doesn’t mean there isn’t some incredible and award-worthy work coming out of these places. You only need to look at my profile on Tammy Hoy to see what is being done. But there is less time for most places to spend on design. And they’re not entering anymore, as media organizations shift their focus to digital (I assume that’s why?). Hopefully that will change for SND43. I hope to spread the gospel to Canadian newspapers so that there are more titles next year.

But I digress. As much as I like to think everyone is here to read my witty insights and elegant prose, I know it’s beautiful newspaper pages that drive this blog!

So first, here are some from the Globe, with very brief bits about what I like. As with most beautiful pages, they speak for themselves. But as I learned at SND42, there is so much to say about why these pages are excellent.

The Globe and Mail, The way through

As a subscriber to the Globe and Mail, I loved this page the second I peeled it out of the plastic bag (maybe two if it was raining — or, gasp, snowing — that day). It is hard to come up with a novel concept when it comes to the unmistakable shape of the COVID-19 ball, with its protein spikes always threatening to hook on to something. But this was new (for me, though as you can see here another newspaper did something very similar, proving how hard it is to take a unique approach in newspaper design). A tangled COVID knot, showing the almost unnavigable path through this complicated situation. Beautiful and well used white space. Of course it’s a Saturday Globe cover, and I’ve come to expect nothing less, but this was one of the standouts even among the weekly excellence.

Globe and Mail, Too much oil

At first glance even a seasoned designer might not see this idea as novel. Reverse white text on a black background. But this isn’t just to make it pop. This page works, it rises to a new level, only because it’s about oil. Too much oil. The black has a real purpose. And you can see the oil swishing at the top. It’s someone taking an old idea and making it new, giving it purpose. It’s a bold use of space.

Globe and Mail, The Trump Administration, illustrated by Kagan McLeod

This page is almost entirely driven by its illustration by the incredibly talented Kagan McLeod (who also did the National Post cover illustration to mark Prince Philip’s death). There is so much happening. It’s so busy, but in a good way. Like a Where’s Waldo picture, you can spend so much time taking in all the different ideas and details. The text is played respectfully, letting the illo do most of the talking.

Globe and Mail, Where do we go from here

While the Globe had many more outstanding pages, this is the last I’ll look at. I like it, again, because it takes an old idea and makes it new. I see lots of graph-driven pages. But usually those graphs dominate the page in order to make them stand out as main art. It’s a graph after all. But in this case, the graph is tiny. I mean, it is a graph after all. But that makes it stand out even more. It’s a tiny focal point. But your eye goes there. And it illustrates a rapidly shrinking number. Once big, now also tiny. And another Report on Business cover. I love to see so much creativity on business pages.

Toronto Star

Toronto Star, Fate of the Union

Some in Canadian media will recognize this Toronto Star page, as it was also nominated for a National Newspaper Award for presentation/design. On top of COVID-19, George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, there was an election for the ages in the U.S. And one complicated by COVID. Often results are late. Often a country is divided. But in 2020, both reached new levels. Mail-in ballots meant delaying your press start by three hours likely wouldn’t net you results. The question mark made up of the states was such a creative way to illustrate this. Red, blue, too early to call. Fate of the Union is such a great headline as this was one of the most important election in U.S. history. And the world was watching.

Toronto Star, A day to reflect, Canada

The work that must have gone into this page is extraordinary. It takes 3,000 images from Star photographers since the beginning of the pandemic lockdown and makes up one image of a woman wearing a Canadian flag mask. And the head works so well with the mosaic. But again, it comes down to how much work and the thought process that must have gone into this. It’s mind boggling.

Le Devoir

Le Devoir, American colours

This Le Devoir page is a fun and different approach to the U.S. election. Going into it it was anybody’s guess. The polls were so close. So Le Devoir highlights that with empty stars, ready to be coloured in, complete with pencil crayons.

Thanks, Canada

There were more great entries from each of these papers. I salute the effort they put in, as well as papers like the National Post and others, which didn’t have entries as far as I could see. Print is still kicking in Canada, and while it might not be as vibrant as that in the States and other countries around the world, it’s still alive. I hope 2021 will see more entrants, and, more importantly, more bold and inspired print designs. If newspapers want to show readers they still care, they need to make an effort. And I will be here to celebrate it when they do.

Have thoughts? Share them below.

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.

Have thoughts? Share them below. Want to see more? Subscribe!

By Brad Needham

Scrolling through newspaper designs on the Freedom Forum’s website is one of my favourite hobbies. I like to do it as often as possible, and hope I can even get there daily. The site is amazing, but only hosts pages for the day of publication. Like Cadbury Eggs and Easter, after that they’re gone. But it means if I miss a day, I might miss some magical front page designs. It also makes it exciting when I do find a great design. Like hearing your favourite song on the radio, rather than on repeat on Spotify.

Thursdays have been lucky days for me so far. Though it could be forced luck. I want to publish a post by Thursday every week if possible, so as a typical journalist, I wait until Thursday. And wouldn’t you know it? There are some great designs this week too. What I like to do most days is truly take a brisk scroll through the pages. If a page doesn’t catch my eye as I scroll through hundreds from around the world, I move on. But some did catch my eye today. As a picture is worth 1,000 words, I won’t blather on too much about each page, but I do want to celebrate the creativity and explain why I like these pages.

Anyone familiar with my designs might think I have a bias toward this because it reminds me of me. That’s simply … only slightly true. I love that the Collegian cover is blown out on one topic. I love the footprints, and how they’re a design in themselves. And, yes, I will give points for the play on words, Weed all about it. (Insert slow clap here.) It’s an important topic, creatively done. The white space is well used, which is harder than it looks. All in all, it’s a smokin’ page. The design draws me in and makes me want to … weed the story.

Great minds think alike. This was a page I did after completing a redesign of the Guelph Mercury (RIP). This was the first day of the redesign, and also looking at a carbon footprint.

The Toronto Star often has solid designs, particularly for their centrepiece stories. (Disclaimer: I worked at the Star!). This is a basic design: reverse text (white on black), big numbers. But that’s all you need. It’s above the fold, which, as discussed in a previous post, might be an outdated model in terms of design consideration, but it allows you to blow out part of page, and leave the rest for key news content. In the age of shrinking news holes and page counts, that can be crucial. Designs are nice, but readers come first. But the Star balances this well. Two key numbers that help tell a story. Text on photo. A nice header graphic. And a good bit of two stories to boot. That is just a nicely put-together newspaper page.

I like these two pages for the same reason: creative graphics/illustrations. Kleine Zeitung uses its headline to complement the photo, about prices going through the roof. I love it when a headline and photo or graphic really work together. And it’s just a fun illustration with the arrow breaking through the top. It looks like live action!

The Metro graphic captures your attention instantly. Presumably intentionally, it also ties the text to the picture, talking about how diseases have helped shape vaccines and health systems. And we all know that distinctive COVID shape by now. I also really dig the use of colours. The tan and black, with red text. Also using reverse text, as the Star did above. Often it can seem too busy. Three colours of headline text, different background colours. But this is thoughtfully done.

It’s pretty obvious what I like here on this Spectrum & Daily News page. You can see the thought process that went into this. It’s a Getty Images illustration (thank goodness for good stock art). But the design is visually enticing. A break from big blocks or text or a picture of some dry landscape in the region. I like the big and literally bold headline, the small red kicker and the big drop cap. And they story is placed in the middle of an interesting image, so you get a big, bold illustration, but also can start to tell the story on the front page. All can be entry points to draw the reader in. There is little doubt where one’s eye will go first on this page, or at least which story.

That concludes today’s leisurely scroll! Thanks for joining me. If you have any thoughts, let me know below!

By Brad Needham

Most days I like to look through the daily front pages of newspapers around the world from the Freedom Forum (I will do a post about this organization soon). I am always looking for inspiration or trends or just one-off great newspaper designs. Today I found a sad theme: COVID-19. Yes, that is on the front page of most newspapers every day. But for the most part they are standard news pages, though I have written about a couple of other days with great pages, one from the New York Times and its Wall of Grief and one that looked at the anniversary of the pandemic declaration. Today there were some big designs. Interestingly two of the three I found used what is also an increasingly common design device: the generic stick figure-type shape. But one newspaper used it to mark vaccination efforts and another to mark COVID deaths. Both striking.

Both of these covers are powerful in their own rights. One, the Citizen Times uses the figures to mark a sombre story. Each figure represents one death over a year, 301 in total. Not the one on the line on its own. Even that uneven number, the imbalance, as power to what has been a sad and lonely year for many. But it’s more symbolic as it talks about the first death, and then the 300 that followed. That first death will always be symbolic. And there is a single figure, on a line of its own. The Citizen Times takes an interesting approach of putting the text of the story in the middle, over top of some of the figures. Despite some of the 301 being covered, the idea is still powerful, and I am a fan of starting a story on text when it works. It does here.

On the San Francisco Chronicle front, each figure represents 10,000 people. But it’s more hopeful. The first batch, red, represents the number of people between the ages of 50 and 64 who are eligible to receive vaccines starting today. That is 5.5 million people whose lives could change today or soon. The next, the black batch, represents those who have not been vaccinated but are eligible as of April 15. And the bottom, the blue with check marks, are those who have received at least one dose.

It’s fascinating that two papers, thousands of miles apart, decided to blow out their covers with figures representing COVID-19. Two pages. Very similar ideas. Very different representations. One sombre, one hopeful. Both powerful.

Denník N, a Slovakian paper, uses this very powerful page also to mark the same sombre milestone as the Citizen Times. Deaths over one year due to COVID-19. It uses reverse white text on a black cover, which really highlights the gravity. A small cross in the bottom corner. A large number, both physically and as a marker for the number of deaths: 9,719. And that number is higher today. The deaths continue.

I expect we will see a lot more pages like these as communities continue to mark milestones, either grim or hopeful. I highlight these pages to show the power of newspaper print design, whether the message is positive or negative.

Previous posts:

The Pandemic Papers
The Wall of Grief
Print is dead, long live print

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.

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.