How the Plain Dealer Came Up with LeBron James Front Page

Surely by now you’ve seen it — the front page published Friday by The Plain Dealer.

Basketball superstar LeBron James crushed the spirit of Cleveland basketball fans Thursday evening by announcing — during a live TV broadcast, no less — that he was leaving to join the Miami Heat.

The not-so-Plain Dealer responded with a poster treatment on Friday’s Page One. James, walking out of the frame. A single word as the headline: “Gone.”

And below, floating in a sea of white space, was the coup de grâce. A small block of text pointed to James’ finger: “7 years in Cleveland. No rings.”


It was the ultimate salute to the man to whom Cleveland had poured out its collective heart, only to be left hanging. And it resonated in a big way with readers.

I posed a few questions via e-mail to the visual wits who came up with the idea.

Charles Apple: Have you ever had a single page or project that received the kind of reaction that Friday’s front page received?

Assistant Managing Editor David Kordalski: No. Certainly not since Twitter, Facebook and other social media made it so instant and easy to pass around.

But then again, this story was everywhere and with ESPN and NBC Nightly News popping it up on their broadcasts, it got exposure that no other Plain Dealer pages have ever had.

Inside the rather tight circle of the newspaper design community, the “Porn Priestess” page garnered a considerable amount of attention on the old NewsPageDesigner.com. And back when I worked with Chris Kozlowski in Detroit, there was a tremendous amount of design buzz about The Detroit News’ Red Wings’ Stanley Cup Championship coverage.

Judging by reader reaction, many of our 9/11 pages really touched chords, although that was strictly driven by the emotion of the moment. We had big reprint orders of the [2007] Eastern Conference Championship page and some of our Cavs preview pages.

But this is a phenomenon. Never saw anything like it.

Did your team work up this idea in advance? How long in advance was the page built?

David Kordalski: First, I need to make clear that I did very little actual work (read: none) on this page. It was the result of a creative collaboration between Plain Dealer Design and Graphics Director Michael Tribble and Deputy Design Director for News Emmet Smith.

This particular iteration started with one of Smith’s sketches, but the way they bat ideas back and forth has a ton of give-and-take. It’s a fun process to watch … but it gets kind of blurry when assigning absolute credit to their kind of teamwork. As it should be, in my opinion.

Emmet Smith: I came up with it about 4 p.m. the day of. So, all of about eight hours ahead of time. Michael Tribble and I had been kicking around what we should do for a while, but didn’t have anything that was even remotely close to right until then.

I was of the thinking that Cleveland would really need to see a straight front with “HE’S GONE” in 300-point knockout with a picture, but Michael kept pushing me to do something different, less “boring.” When I brought him that cover, it was half as a joke, not thinking we’d be able to run it. But Michael loved it and was sure it was the right choice.

Kordalski: Although I loved it the first time I saw it, we still kept the door open if we got a fantastic live picture from around town. Chances of that if LeBron left were pretty slim, though.

How difficult was the page to sell to editors?

Smith: Pretty easy. Our editor, Susan Goldberg, had some great tweaks to the small type to make it a little more even-toned. But everyone that saw it loved it. There wasn’t the “Oh, we can’t do that” response that [you'd expect]. It’s great to work at a paper where a page like this can happen.

Did you also have a version in case LeBron stayed?

Kordalski: Yes, but plans for that were a lot looser — in part because the reports were pretty clear from Cavs beat writer Brian Windhorst (a well-sourced and prolific machine, by the way; I hope he’s getting some much-needed rest) and others that LeBron was headed to the Heat.

That page would have undoubtedly been driven by live photography … jubilant Clevelanders would have added an energy that would have been tough to beat.

Several folks have noted that the page posted at the Newseum on Friday differed from the one you sent me (which I posted to my VisualEditors.com blog). How did that come about?

Kordalski: I e-mailed the first version to the Newseum and to ESPN simultaneously as the page was shipped to the plant.

Right after I had done so, Editor Susan Goldberg made a slight headline change, and although I immediately e-mailed a correction; the other one was posted for a short second. The Newseum folks got it straightened out right away.

Funny aside: There was a second mixup. I had taken pains to e-mail the right page to the Newseum manually — typically the front is sent as an automatic feed. The reason it had to be e-mailed was that all the LeBron coverage went to our plant as section “X” because it was a wrap around the A-section, and the auto feed won’t recognize [a page labeled] X01.

But for a little while at least, the real A01 snuck through, got posted and the Weather Channel grabbed it. My wife happened to flip to the Weather Channel right as they were showing the page. The wrong page. I almost spewed Mini-Wheats everywhere when I heard something like, “According to The Plain Dealer, Cleveland’s not cloudy at all … not one mention of LeBron James leaving anywhere on the front page.”

I presume you saw the comment by Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post: “One of the greatest front pages in the history of newspapers.” Your reaction?

Tribble: It’s a humbling thought from a highly respected source, but in the end we just ran with a solid idea in order to speak with our readers in a very direct way. And it resonated. Newspapers should do that every day. God forbid we be interesting.

Smith: I appreciate the sentiment, but it’s no San Francisco Examiner “Bastards!” I still have that one [from the day after 9/11] tucked away.

That ESPN.com interview was quite extraordinary, David. Is your head getting big yet?

Kordalski: No to the big-head thing, but my kids enjoyed that their old man was on ESPN.com. … I always thought I’d make it there for my softball prowess, but if it was largely because I’m one of the few news designers old enough to have witnessed the last major sports championship by a Cleveland team, well, so be it.

You guys make a great team. Which one of you will be the first to defect to The Miami Herald?

Smith: Well, I have twin 3-month-old boys at home, and I think Cleveland’s a great place to raise a family.

Tribble: I’m pretty sure my free agency days are over. So, “This morning, this is very tough, I’m going to take my talents … to the shop across the street for more coffee.”

Kordalski: I don’t become a free agent until Social Security kicks in, so I have a decade or two left. And truth be told, I love living here. It’s unfairly maligned.

Charles Apple is a designer, editor and writer based in Virginia Beach, Va. After six years of blogging at VisualEditors.com/apple, he’s moving his visual journalism blog — Monday, in fact — to the American Copy Editors Society website.

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