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Art in Newsprint: The History and Evolution of Visual Journalism

It’s hard to pinpoint the moment we notice the headlines. Available at the touch of a button or turn of a dial, the news is a constant, while our interest in it is not. Tabloids stare back at grocery store patrons, mocking their bad luck in having to wait for a cashier. Stacks of newspapers are thrown from trucks only to be begrudgingly picked up and taken inside coffee shops by a barista.

             These headlines, these stories, they’ve been already heard -- by word of mouth, by the radio, by the morning news. Fleeting and instant, they’re never quite permanent until they’ve been trapped in printer ink.

             While the reporter stands as the universal beacon of news and the unofficial mascot of the newspaper industry, it takes several teams, comprising of different specialties to produce the bundle of newsprint that will eventually lands on doorsteps. A story might start with a reporter, but before it lands in a reader’s hands, it will no doubt see an editor, designer, copy editor, prepress and eventually a printer.

             Second only to a reporter, stories and photographs tend to spend the most time at the design/copy desk being manipulated and arranged into the confines of a particular publication. The style of newspapers has dramatically evolved from the early days of colonial America, to the tabloid-infested newsstands of major metropolitan cities, yet its purpose remains the same, to alert and inform the mainstream. With that evolution came the need for artists within newspapers, visual journalists, to develop pages and produce visually engaging pages, attracting readers to the stories on page.

             A branch of graphic design, newspaper designers also use the art of design and communication to produce the pages of a newspaper in an aesthetically pleasing and engaging manner through the use of typography, photography and space. Often also referred to as publication designers, visual journalists are considered a subset of graphic design and visual communication, which is the root of their education. Newspaper designers are also educated in traditional journalistic practices, including methods of inquiry, execution of writing styles and their specific publication design standards.

             These methods, carefully crafted over the course of American history can be traced back to colonial America, where the birth of journalism in this country came from the production of Publick Occurrences (1690), over 300 years ago (Harrower, 4). This first publication, printed by Richard Pierce and edited by Benjamin Harris, resembled much more of a pamphlet than a modern newspaper, but it set the precedent for the way Americans got their news.

            In the beginning, the stories were stacked, the illustrations hand-drawn, the price a nickel. A newsboy stood on the corner distributing the day’s news, feeding the curiosity of the public, curing their insatiable need for journalistic consumption. The news was contagious and everyone wanted it.
             Publick Occurrences, distributed on the streets of Boston, it was designed with a simple but large flag, which sat on top of a two-column grid with very little gutter space. It wasn’t until Benjamin Franklin that the first editorial cartoon was printed in 1754 (Harrower, 4). Advertisements shortly followed, appearing on the front pages of newspapers in 1704 (Harrower, 4).

             By the 19th century, newspapers were beginning to evolve once again and began taking shape into what would later be modern design elements. Civil War era newspapers were among the first to give way to much more spacious headlines and begin stacking stories in decks (Harrower, 4). The Chicago Tribune was one of the first to blow this new trend out of the water with its coverage of the Great Fire of 1871, which included an astounding 15 decks (Harrower, 4).

             Another modern design element, photography, was introduced in newsprint for the first time in 1880, but didn’t become a common feature until the early 1900s, with the popularization of the camera (Harrower, 4). Today, photojournalism makes up a whole division of newspapers and journalism altogether.

             With the introduction of photography, newspapers were beginning to take shape and resemble what we’re used to seeing on newsstands today; designers began experimenting with typeface sizes and fonts. Headlines were bigger, bolder and in your face. The newspapers themselves also grew and evolved, adding pages to include crime, sports, travel and foreign sections (Harrower, 5).

             However, these rapid growths also lead to the rise of yellow journalism, in which stories were sensationalized, poorly researched and had no legitimate facts. Large headlines would be exaggerated in order to sell papers, which was later deemed unethical and unprofessional. Standards like these were later set forth by the rise of professional societies such as The Society of Professional Journalists and The Society of News Design.

             Today, newspaper design has evolved to include ethical practices and much more modular design. Refined headlines, a 6-column standardized grid and white gutters instead of rules have become the normal practices for larger, news-centric papers. While styles vary from publication to publication, there are four main elements that remain constant: headlines, text, photos and cutlines (Harrower, 26).
             Along with the evolution of design, the newspaper industry underwent changes to its practices and techniques as technology improved. In the early days of newspaper design, type was set by hand and typesetters set every character and item on the page individually (Harrower, 22). It was a slow and tedious process, which required a lot of time and patience.
             Over time, this evolved into paste-ups, named for the process in which pages were printed out from a computer to a board. This required a lot of math and calculation on behalf of the designer, who used a variety of tools, including: pencils for drawing drafts, grease pencils for marking photos, X-acto knifes for trimming photos or stories and a pica pole for measuring out pages in picas and inches.
             Today, while there are still those in the newsroom who remember paste-ups, they are much more grateful for the ever-evolving technology in which the industry thrives. Programs such as the Adobe Creative Suite, which include In Design, Illustrator, Photoshop and Dreamweaver, come in handy on a daily basis to visual journalists working in the field today. Print publications are now paginated, or produced electronically. Instead of printing out the pages to paste onto the boards, they are saved as PDF files and sent electronically to the printer.
              Digital cameras have also helped in eliminating photo studios in newsrooms, but at the same time have given designers the ability to fix and tweak photos in programs such as Photoshop. Photojournalists have also as of recently begun seeing a change in their roles and department. In a much publicized business move, The Chicago Sun-Times fired their entire staff of photographers – 28 total, including the award winning John White in May 2013.
             The tabloid-sized publication armed their reporters with iPhones and asked them to fill both their role as a journalist and now that of a photojournalist. The Chicago Sun-Times quickly became the target – and mockery – of the journalism industry. Blogs such as Sun-Times, Dark Times compared daily editions of both the Sun-Times and its direct competitor, The Chicago Tribune.
             As a result of this cost-cutting maneuver, readers pledged allegiance to the Tribune’s traditional route and dropped the Sun-Times as the first flood of reporter shot images printed. Consequently, this has made designer’s jobs much more difficult. Photos are no longer large file sized and as a result, articles are accompanied by grainy, blurry, poorly cropped photos instead of the high-quality, thought-provoking RAW image files they were accustomed to working with.

             So designers at The Chicago Sun-Times, and at publications that followed in their lead, including Suburban Life Publications and Shaw Media, had to think of other ways to engage readers and keep them coming back to their publications.

             Thinking outside of the box is 90% of design. It definitely helps if to know how to do something in In Design or Illustrator, if a designer can tone or manipulate photos in Photoshop, but the real question is what are they going to do with it? What are they going to create? And how is it going to get their message across to readers?

             Designers tend to see the world in a different light, mostly in terms of story ideas. What can be done with this? How can this be designed? There are particular news-subjects that are already hard to illustrate. What would say ‘failing school district’ in an ethical, polite, non-boring way?
             Well, first designers have to think, what do people associate with schools? Chalk, whiteboards, teachers, apples, ABC’s, pencils. Now, since this type of story wouldn’t be a light feature piece, it’s about a crumbling school district, it can’t be a bright and cheery photo. So how do you turn those dark? Powdered chalk, dirty whiteboard, rotten apple… broken pencils. In this manner, visual journalists have reevaluated their work and proved themselves invaluable to the publications they design for.
             This type of thinking is ultimately what separates the designers from visual journalists. The amount of journalistic background and ethics that visual journalist need to possess in order to be a news designer, an opinion designer and even a sports designer, is much more involved than a designer working for a print design firm. Knowledge of AP, ethical practices including and not limited to photos, headline writing, biasness and placement of both editorial and advertisement content are all crucial in becoming a visual journalist.
             While both aim to produce visually engaging content, a visual journalist’s audience is much more widespread. Reporters are encouraged to write at a fifth-grade reading level, while designers are taught to design from a non-arts audience point of view. Headlines need to remain catchy, but understandable. Design visually interesting and one that draws the viewer in, but not so overly designed that it turns off a reader.

             Visual Journalism continues to be a fine balancing act between attainable, everyday art and just another piece of paper to throw out at the end of the day. While the average reader might not know the thought, trial and error and overall production of the average newspaper, the fact that they’ve picked it up at all is a testament to the designer. In the end, visual journalism isn’t meant to be in the reader’s face, it runs in the background, while the reader is seemingly unaware just how many design elements are on a page – and how much time, evolution, ingenuity and history has lead to that one news page.

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