Newsprint isn’t dead, yet

Just before lockdown I had several conversations with colleagues and students about whether newspapers would survive Covid-19. At the prospect of newsagents and train stations closing for months on end, and assuming these are the prime retailers for newspapers outside of people having them delivered, I predicted the situation could be devastating for printed journalism. As people who are used to consuming their news through inkies are forced to switch to app and online counterparts, I wondered whether they would ever go back to print, post-pandemic.

Despite the fact that printed papers aren’t financially sustainable in the modern age anyway, and tend to only survive due to backers—whether wealthy media moguls or through supporter sponsorship—if their audience does shift its consumer habits then there is only so much money a publisher will throw at a loss leader.

If there is to be any saviour for news in printed form, it is likely to be due to graphic design and the impact a well considered layout with a strong concept can bring to the reader experience. If an example is needed, then you need look no further than The New York Times. In March it used playful typography to effectively illustrate an article about social distancing with circles of space created around the typography.

Wondering About Social Distancing? in print. Image: The Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas
Wondering About Social Distancing? online. March 2020

In looking at how the article appears online, there is no comparison in regard to visual impact. In the printed examples, even without reading the text the narrative is still delivered. Given there is something of the petri dish in this circular depiction, an additional layer of subconscious messaging is added that it is difficult to reproduce in templated girds used for websites. Because they are updated on a regular basis throughout the day, there is less room for such sites to be playful with the text itself. That’s not to say apps and webpages can’t be inventive, far from it, but user engagement is more likely to be delivered via stand-alone animated / interactive content and video that sits alongside the story.

The New York Times went one step further on 24 May, after the deaths from Covid-19 in the United States of America edged towards 100,000. They took the bold decision to eschew all imagery for the paper’s front page and print the names of 1000 victims to the virus, symbolising 1% of the human toll as they did so.

According to the paper itself: “Simone Landon, assistant editor of the Graphics desk, wanted to represent the number in a way that conveyed both the vastness and the variety of lives lost.”

Tom Bodkin, The Times’ Creative Director, who has a keen interest in the history of newspapers, said “he did not remember any front pages without images during his 40 years at The Times”.

It certainly creates an emotional response that only a physical presence can. To try to make the same impact on a webpage or app would not be possible. As it is, The Times had to use 4 pages to display 1000 names and their associated human back-stories, screens simply could not articulate that in the same way. Scrolling down a webpage could cover the enormous numbers, but the printed version allows viewers to see so many more names in one glance, thus visualising the scale and without offering the option to stop scrolling.

Utilising the means of delivery to maximum effect, as The New York Times has done, is one way to keep the printed page alive to human interaction. It creates a response beyond the page as well, making for Tweetable moments, which further helps to drive up both physical sales and online subscriptions. As ever, many such discussions about physical verses digital are often reduced down to being an argument for one or the other. However, both can deliver their messages if their differences are utilised, and both can then support each other. If publishers are prepared to invest in good quality design, then we may still see newspapers survive beyond Covid. I’ll keep my inky fingers crossed.