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Bars to understanding

9 Nov

What’s going on with this graph in the Mail?

It says “Tory poll lead falls after standards row”, but it seems to show the Tories pulling well ahead of their hated rivals, the Tories, while Labour loses ground inexorably to the Labour party of last week.

Squinting at the small print, we discover that the lighter coloured bars represent the current polling, and the darker bars the previous week’s results. However, the later figures have been placed to the left of the earlier ones, not the right, in reverse chronological order – a methodology applied equally to all parties, but one which, visually, gives the opposite impression to what’s intended. It looks like a picture of continued blue success and red failure.

Similarly, what does this graph, from March, suggest to you is happening?

The correct answer is that the Tories have moved out to 45% of the vote and Labour has fallen back to 32%. But is that what you initially “see”? The Tories look to be declining and Labour surging. Isn’t it more usual to place the later figures on the right, as the eye tracks naturally from left to right across the page? And don’t the wide gaps between the different parties encourage you to compare their performance against themselves, rather than the opposition? Also, the brighter blue seems to count as a “dark” colour, but the brighter red a “light” one: going just by what’s most eyecatching, don’t you end up comparing 39% with 35% in the first graph and 45% with 36% in the second, neither of which represents the correct gap?

This isn’t some effort to obfuscate unfavourable findings, or try some Lib Dem-style sharp practice with the visuals: the Mail has been angered by the Owen Paterson/sleaze debacle, and first graph appears under this uncompromising headline:

It just seems that they always do them this way. But in the absence of any visible x-axis, readers are naturally going to read it from left to right, because that’s how nearly all x-axes run in every other graph. Why flip it for this?

Picture post

17 Aug

I’m not sure I’d ever make a photo editor, but if you lay out news pages you have to know which pictures you like and which you don’t, and for some reason I was struck by this one.

It’s a picture of Laura Kenny of the Great Britain cycling team by Alex Whitehead of SWPix. And it’s so well framed, with the Olympic rings up on the banking above her, that it looks almost like a portrait or an old-fashioned photoshoot: “Ride slowly around the track, and don’t look at the camera.”

But there’s a strangely charged quality to it that you can’t put your finger on, until you read the caption and realise that it was taken, not during a photocall, but shortly after a huge crash in the women’s omnium that took down half the field, including Kenny, and left two riders and an official unable to continue. Then the picture reformulates in front of your eyes: suddenly you see the faraway look in Kenny’s eyes that you had noticed without noticing, and realise that the only reason you can see her eyes at all is because the visor on her helmet was broken off in the impact. It’s not a picture of an Olympian fulfilling a media obligation, but of one trying to pull herself together.

As reinterpretations go, it’s not as disorientating as the critic Walter Pater’s famous suggestion that the Mona Lisa might be underwater (“in that cirque of fantastic rocks, as in some faint light under sea”). But the meaning of the image is sufficiently hidden that it doesn’t make a good news photo. It need a caption to explain it, whereas there are any number of agency pictures of riders flying through the air that would tell the story on their own. News pics need to be a kind of search engine optimisation for the eyes: clear explanatory visuals to go with a clear explanatory headline. If you want to publish photographs that reveal their truth slowly, you probably need to get your art critic involved, as the Guardian did for several years.

All this is quite rarefied photographic air, of course: often the material you’re dealing with is, shall we say, less charismatic. Last week’s business section in the Tribune carried a full double-page spread on the rise of air source heat pumps. We sent out a photographer who has immortalised Malala Yousafzai and Leonard Cohen in stunning monochrome, and he still came back with a picture of a smiling couple standing next to a beige box. As the production editor, who was laying out the spread, grumbled, “even Robert Capa would struggle to make this one interesting”.

Old-school wrap

27 Apr

There’s nothing this blog likes more, as a rule, than a vintage front page layout. But perhaps not this one:

There are 19 headlines on the page and they are all the same size, set in sans caps ranged left, centre and right, with the result that (i) huge amounts of unintended white space are created, and (ii) almost every kind of word has to be omitted to make them fit. Not just nouns, although there is a flying verb in there – WILL SING MESSIAH – but verbs (REPUBLICAN NATIONAL CONVENTION AT CLEVELAND) and prepositions (BROTHER DYING CONDITION) too.

The page is presented, more in sorrow than in anger, by Radder and Stempel in the second edition of their book Newspaper Editing, Make-up and Headlines, the 1940s treasure trove of old-school techniques first brought to our attention by HeadsUp for its clear chapter-and-verse about using flying verbs (or as it likes to call them, “implied subjects”). It also contains this spectacular example of overdisplay, or “circus make-up”, from the Denver Post:

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a headline above a masthead before, and in practically the same size type as well.

But what’s most interesting about the many front pages in the chapter is not the layouts, good though most of them are, but something else: the number of semicolon headlines they have. I had previously assumed that these were almost unique to the New York Times, and only then brought out for special occasions, but here – in papers large and small, on busy news days and quiet ones – they seem to be quite a regular thing after all.

This edition of the book was published in 1942, and most of the contemporaneous front pages are war-related. So what these headlines all seem to encapsulate is what we at the Tribune would call a “wrap”: a roundup of the day’s events on a number of fronts without a particularly strong lead item. This is something else the semicolon head is suited for: not just huge stories where every paragraph might deserve its own headline, but long-running stories that require a wider perspective to grasp them fully. Give or take a major breakthrough, it seemed newspapers understood even at the time that the war was so all-encompassing as to only be properly understood in the round.

None the less, it’s interesting to see wrap stories running as front-page leads. At the Tribune, they are very much second-order items, destined for an inside spread; you know when you pick up “polswrap23” from the queue that it can be cut without too much anguish from management.* In 1940s America, it was clearly different: perhaps because the war was always the biggest story in town, like the pandemic is today. Even so, though, modern Fleet Street papers would never settle for a roundup as the splash; in their ferociously competitive market, they would usually try to lead with a single-aspect scoop on Covid, however manufactured it might be, and save the wrap for page seven.

Wherever they end up, though, you’ve still got to write furniture for them, which is another reason to mourn the unpopularity of the semicolon hed. The reductive temptation is simply to write a simple headline based only on the first item in the article. If you try to capture the portfolio nature of the piece, modern practice would be to use conjunctions – “as” or “while”. But these hint at a causative, or at least thematic, relationship between the clauses, when what you really want to do is write multiple, unconnected headlines. Semicolons are perfect for that; if only journalism wasn’t so afraid of them.

*In this respect, wrap stories differ significantly from the blow-by-blow, long-form features that back up major front-page investigations. At the Tribune these are, rather unexpectedly, known as “guts”, meaning that otherwise cardigan-wearing desk editors start sounding like Vince Lombardi when they’re late: “Where’s the gut? Have we got the gut?”

East-west relations

16 Mar

On the Tube a few months ago, I saw this:

I was familiar with the poem, an ecological updating of Brecht’s Alles Wandelt Sich, but I had only ever seen it printed in book format, with one verse below the other. When you read it like that, understanding comes slowly: you only grasp the parallelism of the construction bit by bit as you progress down the page. But here, your eye is tracking from left to right naturally: as it overruns slightly at the end of the line, it can’t help but glimpse what is to come. As you see in your peripheral vision the same words as you’ve just read, you start to understand what’s going to happen before it happens, and the genius of Brecht’s original conception becomes clear sooner: all the same phrases, but arranged in two different orders to create two contrasting emotions.

And that same design strategy – of using the eye’s movement from east to west as well as from north to south – is one of the few remaining areas where print holds an advantage over digital. The problem with web news articles, as my boss the production editor is fond of saying, is that once you’ve clicked through to them from the homepage, they all look the same: the most explosive splash and the most routine weather story are identically formatted, with the same size of headline, same size of standfirst, same shape of picture at the top and same livery colours (unless you’re really pushing the boat out for a campaign, in which case the last of these might change).

More importantly, the experience of reading them is an isolated and purely vertical one – once you have left the homepage, you are simply scrolling down through a column of text, with nothing to catch the eye on either side: no larger headline to the left, no smaller text box to the right to draw you across or place what you’re reading in the context of other developments.

And even the homepage itself – cluttered as it is with dozens of unrelated stories – can’t hope to achieve the same depth of visual rhetoric as a good double-page spread can. Take this example from the New York Times’s travel section:

The front page hints at what is to come, by starting two separate stories in adjacent columns and turning them both to the spread, but it is the side-by-side display of the spread itself, as with Herbert’s poem, that really tells the story. The photos may vary but the layouts are, essentially, identical: same size main picture, identically formatted smaller picture grouping, headlines that mirror each other. As you look from left to right, the message seems clear before you’ve read a word of the text – that Vegas on $1,000 a day and Vegas on $250 a day are different, but also essentially the same.

At the Tribune, where the sub-editor formats articles for web as well as print, I would have no idea how to reproduce that effect for the online reader – they would either have to be two individual stories, separate from each other as web articles always are, or attached to each other in a fundamentally vertical way, with the second story following the first. It would take a special web design project to get them to sit side by side like this, and even an interactive presentation of some kind would still encounter the problem that faces all online publishing: that the space north to south is infinite, but the space east to west is severely constrained by the size of the reader’s screen.

The east-west effect is so powerful, in fact, that it can operate even when the designer doesn’t want it to, and lead to unintended consequences, like this:

As @jcodfishpie, who tweeted the clipping out almost 10 years ago, observes, Brighton’s top gay should be ashamed of himself.

That hint of print

24 Nov

“Sometimes,” says Andrew Marr, halfway through the Sunday paper review, “the best front pages are the ones online.” And he turns to an image of the tabloid Independent.

But of course, as we have previously discussed, the modern Independent front page is a curious thing. It is online, in the sense that it only exists virtually: the paper stopped printing in 2016. But in appearance, concept and execution, it relies on the language of print. It exists almost exclusively to be included in “what the papers say” roundups, where the visual rhetoric of the front page still has greater impact than a web article called up on an iPad. It is not a native digital format: the Independent’s true front page these days is its homepage, which looks very similar to other digital news fronts, and suffers from the same problem of being updated too often and too quickly to ever serve as a snapshot of a calendar day.

Another curious thing about it is that it still looks the same as it did when the paper stopped printing in 2016 – still with a visually dramatic single story next to the distinctive vertical masthead. In fact, that look dates all the way back to 2013; since that time, for instance, the Financial Times, Telegraph and Guardian have all been redesigned. Will the Independent’s digital front page ever be redesigned as well? Or will it have to stay as it is, fossilised by the necessity of reminding viewers of the time when it was a newspaper too?

Parachutes for miles

10 Dec

It’s admire-the-front-page time again:

This time, it’s the old broadsheet Daily Express from 16 August 1944, breathlessly reporting news of Operation Dragoon, the Allies’ invasion of southern France that was supposed to take place on D-Day but happened five weeks later.

Look at that two-deck strap, another New York Times-style omnibus headline, then the two subheads and long standfirsts to herald each of the main reports, from north and south, that split around the picture as though it were a breakwater.* Reporting from “the gap” in Normandy, the renowned foreign correspondent Alan Moorehead is already famous enough to be mentioned in the big type (“Moorehead drives round it”). Around the two main stories there are 15(!) other articles and a map, including the shortest NIB I have ever seen (“News of the Allied landing in South France has elated the people of Moscow”, stop, ends) and a somewhat uninformative paragraph of anti-news (“NOT GEN. DEVERS: The immediate commander of the Allied Forces in the South of France has not been identified, but reports naming General Jacob Devers are described in Rome as incorrect.—A.P.”).

This is wartime, so the blackout times – rather than the lighting-up times – are listed in the masthead, and there are a couple of obvious flag-wavers downpage (“Hate? –’British do not know how'”; “Trapped Germans were all drunk”). But other than that it’s all hard news and clean copy, crashed together overnight as a new front opened on the Riviera. And in the spirit of making do, even Brylcreem seems keen to encourage economies: “Grasp the bottle as shown (note the finger firmly on the cap), then flick the wrist smartly to and fro in semi-rotary fashion for a few seconds; on removing cap, the cream will then flow without difficulty.”


*The second headline looks like it might be a flying verb – [Troops] storm over gap? – but in fact, it’s a weather report: “storm”  is a noun, not a verb.

A hundred years ago

4 Sep

What a front page this is:

© Vancouver Sun/Postmedia

There’s a New-York Times-style triple-stack headline at the top, complete with semicolons – except that, unlike the Times, the three headlines are about three separate stories, which you then have to hunt about on the page to find; it’s not so much a headline as a news briefing. As a bonus, one of the headlines is wrong: “Nikolai” (? Vladimir?) “Lenine” (? spelling?) was not “shuffled off stage” by a “woman assassin” in 1918, as students of history will know: the Sun was misled by a telegram from Russia and was unaware that he had survived.

Then there are the peculiar tense sequences in some of the headlines: “Petrograd reports Bolsheviki leader dies by assassin” (not “has died”); “French troops take Loury; captured thousand Huns” (not “capture”). Then there are the flying verbs in the standfirsts, appearing decorously after the subject has been introduced (“They have got a footing in important wooded region; still advance”). Then there’s the Daily Express-style braggadocio in the masthead: “A Great Newspaper Growing Greater”. Someone has written a list headline (“This is August bag”). Someone’s even used the word “famous” in the furniture, which wouldn’t have passed the Tribune’s revise desk without comment.

I don’t know what the count rules are for those staggered three-deck headlines, but someone seems to have broken them for the Lenin story: the first two decks are so full that it looks like the third has been set right by mistake. “…is summary of report” is a slightly anticlimactic way to end a headline that starts “Huns now admitting defeat”.

But it’s impossible not to love the rhetorical panache of the subheads (“ONWARD FROM BAPAUME”), the profusion of visual entry points, or the exhilarating jumble of the 12-story layout. 1918 was a tumultuous year, to be sure, but in the 2 September edition of the Daily Sun, published 100 years ago this week, there’s not a headline you wouldn’t want to write or a story you wouldn’t want to read.

Semi articulated

30 May

Kurt Vonnegut rejected them; the Tribune’s sports section used to ban them; George Orwell thought they were unnecessary. But the New York Times likes semicolons so much that it even uses them in headlines.

Or at least it does when it is making one of its distinctive attempts to write three or four headlines above the same story, like this:

This style only ever appears on the biggest stories, where almost every paragraph of the text is worth a headline, but it’s still an impressively literate thing to see in 60-point capitals when there is so much antipathy towards semicolons in some quarters. Vonnegut famously called them “transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing”; Orwell thought they were “an unnecessary stop” and wrote a novel without them to prove it; the Tribune’s esteemed former sports editor, The Gaffer, insisted that they could all be replaced with full stops or commas, according to context.

And that is true, to a certain extent: if you adopt the “safety rule” with semicolons, which is to ensure that both the clauses on either side of it are independent – as a rule of thumb, that both are complete sentences in their own right* – then they can be replaced by a period in all cases. Except that then you lose the nuance that the New York Times headlines exemplify so well: the signal the semicolon sends that a second thought connected to the first one is about to follow. If you had four sentences ending in full stops, any one of them might mark the end of the discussion; the semicolon indicates that the subject remains open. It creates an expectation of more, in a similar way as the colon, in Fowler’s words, “delivers the goods that have been invoiced in the preceding words”.

By way of total contrast, here is one of the New York Times’s other ambitious headline innovations: the split-splash front page.

Here again there is more than one headline at the top of the page, but this time there’s no relation between them at all: they are about two completely different stories that the paper is giving joint top billing. In the unusual visual grammar of NYT layout, the lead story usually runs in the sixth column**: so the top headline, ranged left, relates to the story on the right of the page, and the bottom headline, ranged right, relates to the five columns to the left. Both the headlines are set in the same type at the same size, so it will take a lot more than mere punctuation to separate them; you might argue that even the long horizontal rule between the headlines is barely doing enough. At any event, it’s hardly the place for a semicolon.


*At first sight, this would appear not to be the case in two of the pictured examples, “Flies 1,000 miles…” and “Collect rocks…”, which appear to be awkward dependent clauses without subjects. But I suspect – given their vintage and the fact that they follow a subject introduced in the first headline – that they are both examples of the glorious flying verb.

** Confirmed, if confirmation were needed, by this behind-the-scenes piece about a hasty front-page redesign.

Where’s the splash?

29 Mar


Back in New York last week, just in time to see spring: sunlight illuminating wide, peaceful Broadway on the Upper West Side, blossom bobbing in the cold wind outside 72nd Street station. Like any Manhattan visitor, I did the Manhattan things one does: walking the High Line, going to a Broadway show, spending five solid minutes looking at the map trying to work out which F trains stop at Second Avenue.* And, of course, I read the New York Times.

As a broadsheet journalist, I understand the value of restraint, of course. And nuance, and the plurality of agendas that need to be reflected on a mature front page. But as I read (and, annoyingly, mislaid) an edition last week that was laid out just like the one pictured above, I still found myself wondering: which story’s the splash?

Instinctively I look first to the top left of a front page, to the first column, where there is indeed a story: the Bloomberg one. Is that the lead? The famously distinctive typography offers few clues: but the headline for the four column pic story appears to be in almost exactly the same bold italic. Over on the right, though, in column 6, the headline is in semi-bold caps. Does that outrank bold ital? There’s a subhead and a standfirst too: on sheer weight of furniture, it’s probably Saudis that’s the splash, way over on the right. But it took a while to find it.

The similarity of headline styles above the fold is one of the most striking things about the NYT to British eyes. It’s not that they’re small; it’s that they seem almost all the same size. By comparison, the template for a big double-page spread at the Tribune envisages a fully 40-point gap between the main headline on the page (66pt bold serif display) and the second and subsequent ones (26pt sans regular).

In fact, if you look at another striking Times layout, with the lead story in column 6 and the second story in column 5,


you can see that there is a difference in size between the caps and the bold italics, but it’s hard to detect if they’re not right next to each other. (Also, below the pic, there is a regular, unemphasised upper-and-lower headline that appears to be slightly larger than the bold italic headline next to it. Does that make it more or less important?)

Just add to the confusion, here’s another layout from January with two all-caps headlines, one on the right, one under the picture.


Again, the extra trimmings suggest the column 6 story is the splash, but it’s hardly what you’d call over-displayed. In fact, in all three examples, the paper is in effect being led by the photograph – especially the second one, which grandly takes up the first four columns on the page, displacing every headline down or to the right.

Typography in British newspapers is designed around the mystique of the splash: the one big story, with one big headline, delivered per day, with a supporting cast of other items as decoration. It makes every front page lively: everything looks good in 72-point bold. But the headline type doesn’t get smaller on a slow news day, so ordinary stories can end up getting a fanfare they can’t quite live up to. British news typography works on a relative scale: forget yesterday or the moon landings – this is what’s big today.

By contrast, the standard Times layouts functions at their best on slow news days: days where there are two lead stories, or, frankly, none. The single-column headlines over single-column stories communicate a judicious calm – a longer view – and a certain sense of honesty about the day’s events: an impression that many things are happening, and many things are news. So if you’re looking at a copy of the Times and wondering what the big story is, you can often find yourself agreeing with the paper: perhaps there isn’t one today.


* My provisional conclusion: they all do. In fact, I think, stopping at Second Avenue may be one of the defining characteristics of the F train, distinguishing it from the constellation of alphabetic alternatives (B, D, M etc) that share the line on their way to two different termini in Brooklyn, two in Queen’s and one in the Bronx via six different routes through Manhattan. I think.



Here’s looking at you

18 Jan

Version 2

This looks like the best picture choice for the spread. It’s striking, personable, colourful: there’s a sort of Kitchener-esque directness to it that engages the reader. It breaks the fourth wall. The only reason not to use it would be in the unlikely event of it somehow clashing with one of the adverts when the flatplanning software places them.

Let’s call them in now, just to be sure.


Oh damn.