Monday, September 15, 2008


In the early 1980s I was occasionally doing the front page for The Flint Journal, which had a big street sale with first-shift workers coming out of the city's then-gigantic auto plants. I was trying, in keeping with the best thinking about newspapers then -- you weren't selling breaking news in the afternoon, you were selling in-depth journalism, you didn't want to overplay stories -- to do a front page placing the most meaningful, thoughtful stories at the top, with evocative headlines that could convey their subtlety -- i.e. small. And I got word that I was killing the paper's street sales.

When people came out of the factory, they wanted to see a big headline on the Journal's front page, one that said -- there's something interesting here. Buy this. All I was giving them was a small blur of black. And until then we had run stories above the flag, we had chopped the flag down by two columns. I knew instead that one was always supposed to run the flag full-width at the top of the page, and laid out the page in that manner. The flag was the visual starting cue that let the reader know where to begin.

When I was a child reading The Honolulu Advertiser -- if I've never explained how, as a child in Indiana, I read The Honolulu Advertiser every day, don't ask, but I did -- the paper would have gigantic headlines in red, and sometimes the name of the paper would be placed as an afterthought in columns three through five. The Los Angeles Times "Preview" edition had huge headlines.

The thinking in the 1950s and 1960s, though, was that that treatment was just for street sales. The home subscriber wanted something more restrained, more middle-class.

Department stores used to have display windows facing Main Street, some of them over-the-top. I remember talking to executives of Ziesel Bros. Co. in Elkhart, Ind., in the early 1970s. They had taken out the display windows because research had shown that people liked to see into stores to see the actual merchandise. Unfortunately, what you saw inside the windows of Ziesel Bros. was the store and not that much merchandise. I'm sure that there was a turn away from artificially designed display windows, but if you replaced it with a boring view of a store that next week looked pretty much like last week, why would anyone get excited?

In the 1980s, newspaper designers said that the flag was sacrosanct. Did Time run the word "Time" at the bottom of the page? And so the flag became an immutable element. Now papers such as The State in Columbia, the Yakima Herald Republic and the Klamath Falls Herald and News are running mini-flags, overlay flags, embedded flags. Also, papers such as the Waco Tribune-Herald are making sure that every day's paper comes with one extremely large headline. Alan Jacobson's design for the Boomerang in Laramie comes with almost incredibly large headlines above the flag, which may be halfway down the page.

What this has needed is a blessing, and now designer Mario Garcia has given it. I'm sure many designers will be aghast, that this deviates from all the work done to create clear navigation and a sense of priority and reader comfort. And those things are important. But they only work when someone actually uses the paper. And clearly many papers are asking themselves if they have become too staid, too predictable, too caught in the New York Times vision of saying that whatever may happen in the world, it is (with rare exceptions) not a surprise to The New York Times or its readers and thus it will be treated appropriately and measuredly. That is how readers of The New York Times want to see themselves, but it probably doesn't move many papers in Tulsa.

Yes, the reader wants to be able to get through the paper easily, and yes, geegaws and gimcracks ought not to get in the reader's way out of our boredom. But America is full of front pages that nearly scream, "Gee, nothing in particular happened today." If we're just going through the motions, why should you care? The sanctity of the flag always seemed to me to be more about the sanctity of the designer's design than selling the paper. Even if it will inevitably swing too far, it's time to swing. Excitement and fun are not opposed to good journalism.

1 comment:

Michael j said...

The Honolulu Advertiser!! I actually worked with a guy in Montgomery, Ala., who had just come from the Advertiser. I think he ultimately went back there. Bob Ursul.