Where are all of the truly great Sunday, front page designs in the U.S. these days?

As I do my daily run through the Newseum’s collection of front pages, Sunday looks a lot like Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday.

“Papers seem to be taking fewer chances,” said Suzette Moyer, creative director of the St. Petersburg Times’ Bay Magazine. “Instead of blowing out that one big story that they know is good, papers are trying to appease every reader by cramming it all on the front page.”

You have a little more time to read on a Sunday, right? And more time to analyze what you’ve read. It should be special.

Granted, there might be a beautifully executed front page on any given Sunday in any given town with the ability to stop a reader in her tracks. Some papers excel at this (see examples below). But, by and large, I think the volume has been turned down to a rather monotonous murmur around the U.S.

“I don’t think there is enough surprise to most Sunday papers,” said Moyer.

And no big surprise as to why.

Supposition 1: There are tough cuts in every part of the newsroom. It’s unfortunate and inevitable. But perhaps we’ve reached a tipping point in quality by eliminating too many positions for visual journalists?

Design and graphics staffs are about half the size they were 10 years ago, says Jeff Goertzen, graphics director of the Denver Post (and soon to be director of graphics at USA Today), who conducted an informal survey of about 50 newsrooms earlier this year.

“The average design staff that was about 22-24 people 10 years ago in a big newsroom is now around 12 or 13 people,” said Goertzen. Where there were once nine artists, those staffs now have three or four. Eight of the major papers surveyed have no graphic artists at all. Copy desks and photo staffs have taken tremendous hits, too.

Supposition 2: Those designers and graphic artists who remain in newsrooms are doing a lot more things -- and often those things don’t have much visual impact.

A front page designer might fill a news editor slot throughout the week, lay out multiple inside sections and produce for the website. Most websites are strictly formatted, so the work has relatively little design impact outside of a standard layout.

I know photo directors who pick up assignments themselves, losing precious time for essential picture editing. I know disappointed copy desk chiefs who have little time to think about the headlines they so love to write.

“That’s the trend,” said Goertzen, “those people that are left are morphing into more hybrid positions.

“Even a photo gallery is time-consuming to create,” said David Kordalski, visual editor at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. “And online photos don’t get a lot of eyeballs. Galleries still don’t have the reach that print does for now, at least not at the Plain Dealer.”

Supposition 3: The average news hole in the Sunday paper is smaller than it was five years ago. Historically, investigative projects are the ones that have been afforded more time and space for design, photos and presentation. Perhaps the big, expansive investigative stories are fewer and farther between.

But, regardless of the size of the story, you want to be able to draw readers to the most important stories of the day—every day—with an element of surprise. A “regular” day might be no different than a “twelve-part series” day to a potential reader who might buy a newspaper from a box.

Good design also means knowing what the volume level should be on the front page over time and designing accordingly. “In some cases, (newspapers) have turned it up to an “11,” said Kordalski, “without the story really warranting the play.”

To design well is to edit well.

Supposition 4: The creation of centralized design centers and simplified templates are business decisions -- decisions that might show considerable savings on overall production and something that certainly works for low impact pages. But the time saved should be used for strong visual storytelling on key pages.

Much more than filling holes on a page, design requires conversation and upfront time with the story so that it can be presented as it should be -- a true marriage of words and images. It requires time and inspiration for it to gel.

Front page design isn't usually suited to an assembly-line situation.

“I think designers have lost a little bit,” said Moyer. “We need to get back up on the ladder."

Here are a few pages that made me stop.

The Virginian Pilot goes big on concept with a story about the national debt, yet they still manage to have five stories starting on the front. The Cleveland Plain Dealer draws the eye with an equation on a chalkboard.
The Virginian-Pilot goes big on concept with a story about the national debt, yet they still manage to have five stories starting on the front. The Cleveland Plain Dealer draws the eye with an equation on a chalkboard.
These pages work especially well for me, for different reasons. The Virginian Pilot, which does a great job every day, uses a compelling visual dimension to convey information. All design needs to communicate. The San Francisco Chronicle chose to use this image of Steve Jobs as a young man, in an environment that says a lot about who he was.
These pages work especially well for me, for different reasons. The Virginian-Pilot, which does a great job every day, uses a compelling visual dimension to convey information. All design needs to communicate. The San Francisco Chronicle chose to use this image of Steve Jobs as a young man, in an environment that says a lot about who he was.
These two front pages have dynamic centerpiece packages, even without dynamic photographs. The Huntsville Times's graphic presentation certainly turns up the volume on a story about tuition increases; The Salt Lake Tribune blends a nice yet static photo of a local theater with data about the arts.
These two front pages have dynamic centerpiece packages, even without dynamic photographs. The Huntsville Times's graphic presentation certainly turns up the volume on a story about tuition increases; The Salt Lake Tribune blends a nice yet static photo of a local theater with data about the arts.
The National Post's front pages move easily from layered analysis to poster-sized photos.
The National Post's front pages move easily from layered analysis to poster-sized photos.

I'd love to hear your ideas and see front pages that were so great you couldn't help but stop to read them -- on a Sunday or any day.