In this installment of the Parts of a Newspaper series, we’ll be looking at the part most central- the front page! Contributing to this post was city reporter for the Juneau Empire, Gregory Philson, who helped shed light on differences between century-old front pages to those of today.
Below is a front page from the former Alaska Daily Empire (now the Juneau Empire) almost exactly 100 years ago, in honor of our guest:
When encountering an older front page, one of the most striking differences to the modern reader is its sometimes-chaotic layout, such as this one below from the January 5, 1923 issue of the Seward Gateway:
Based on this front page, there is no clear visual “path” to the story from its headline. The main headline likely functioned to draw readers into the issue, and to then send the readers in search of the story, while taking them to the other stories. Back then, headlines needed to print every story on its front page, due to the relatively high production costs. Newspapers today typically will have one “central” story surrounded by secondary ones, which may not be as important to that day.
Looking at headlines on a more micro level, an important, if sometimes overlooked, aspect of front page design is in its typography. In addition to the way words look through typefaces, kerning (letter spacing) and letting (spacing between leaders) matters greatly. Letting should allow the reader to not have to think about how the story is physically designed and to enable the content to be understood.
To demonstrate kerning, examine the headline below from the April 21, 1918 issue of The Seward Gateway Daily Edition and The Alaska Weekly Post:
Upon first glance, it is difficult to discern the meaning of the sentence when it looks like “DOUBLEMURDERATKENAI“. Being unable to understand a headline at at quick glance is a clear issue. If the reader does not know immediately what something says, they are less likely to want to read it. Moreover, the philosophy behind proper kerning is to make the words easily read by anyone, which is the objective of any newspaper. Readers simply cannot absorb information if the words themselves are not legible.
Front pages prioritize main stories that highlight conflicts (foreign wars and domestic disputes), or people and events of note. The front page can represent a microcosm of one day in history; readers can search newspaper databases like Chronicling America just by the front page of a specific title. Whether a newspaper represents a small town or a major city, its front page often reflects the people, places, incidents, and events its readers value. A front page of a newspaper reflects a singular moment in time.
Many thanks to our guest, Gregory Philson, and the Juneau Empire, for your time and insights!