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Brass Tacks Design

The last week of December is typically the slowest for news. But the past week was anything but slow as newspapers reported on the end of three remarkable lives: Godfather of Soul James Brown, President of the United States Gerald Ford and President of Iraq Saddam Hussein. To reflect the importance of these stories, newspapers responded with a remarkable number of six-column photos.

Big stories deserve display commensurate with their news value. But last week's six-column images weren't informative news pictures – they were file photos previously seen many times over. And in some cases, they weren't much more than glorified mugshots. Pages like these from The Miami Herald and Portland Press-Herald raise this question:

Do big pictures (six-columns wide) miss the big picture (readership & revenue)?

Consider USA Today and The Wall Street Journal: Combined, they have almost 10 million daily readers who seem perfectly happy without six-column photos. In contrast, consider the Hartford Courant, which has the most elegant design of all American newspapers. Hartford's front page sported two six-column photos last week and one vertical even bigger – 15 inches deep. Hartford's pages are consistently beautiful – perfect for momentous occasions. Its design makes for great posters, but does it engage readers and attract single-copy sales?

Hartford's front pages failed to meet the minimum requirement for single-copy presentation: placing the lead headline above the fold. For instance, the main headline for the Gerald Ford page fell beneath the fold. So did the image of James Brown. One could argue that everyone already knew that both had died. And that Hartford probably has no more 15% single-copy sales. And that single-copy sales are rarely impulse buys.

But Hartford's daily circ. is around 200,000. Fifteen percent of that is 30,000 – too many papers to ignore.

I enjoy a good photo as much as the next person. And I believe readers appreciate photography when it helps them understand a story or when it causes an emotional response. But from a circulation standpoint, the Courant's design strategy seems risky at best: One photo per front almost every day – as if the newspaper belonged in an art museum. At the rate newspapers are losing readers, it won't be long before you'll need to visit a museum to see a newspaper.

Hartford's use of photos would seem more appropriate if Brown or Ford had local ties as Grand Rapids and Columbia, S.C. did. These papers seemed more justified in playing up these stories to satisfy readers in their markets. When national papers like the Chicago Tribune bust out with a big photo for a story that transcends their market, they do it with care and don't make a habit of it. Despite the compliments papers receive for their poster pages, are there ever enough kudos from readers to justify the space on a daily basis?

Before I am pilloried by my brethren in the visual journalism community – who enjoy the positive feedback they get for their work – let me ask them to do the math: Start with your Sunday circulation, then multiply it by 2.5 to determine your readership. Then divide this number by the highest number of positive reader responses ever received for a poster page.

I doubt that the resulting percentage breaks single digits. No matter what the quotient of this equation, it is the highest percentage of readers who really care about big pictures.

I'm not saying big pictures are killing newspapers, but we should consider what big pictures are crowding out – not those long tomes about Bush, the economy, state legislature, etc. I'm talking about stories that are relevant to readers, not merely important to editors – relevant stories that drive readership. And these stories should be presented using new kinds of story-telling devices that present the information in more useful, convenient and compelling ways.

Our research shows that single-copy purchasers prefer big headlines to big photos. Should we just eliminate all the pictures and have nothing but big headlines? Of course not. But the time has come for something completely different. We've got nothing to lose but readers. And at the rate we're going, we're losing them anyway.

Critique of Saddam Hussein front pages

Critique of Gerald Ford front pages

Critique of James Brown front pages

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