We’ve looked at hundreds of newspaper front pages depicting Osama bin Laden’s death this week, and we’ve noticed several trends.
Many of the front pages used the same photo of bin Laden, the color red, and very short, bold headlines. The Citizens’ Voice, The Brownsville Herald and Express were among the papers that represented these trends.
Hoping to learn more about the stories behind their front pages, I talked with the folks who designed them and asked them about the choices they made.
Use of the same, dominant photo
Many of the front pages, including The Citizens’ Voices, used the same dominant photo of bin Laden looking off to the side.
When designing Monday’s front page, Copy Editor Tamara Dunn said there was no doubt that she would use that photo on the cover.
“That was the one photo that was always so striking and menacing,” Dunn said in a phone interview. “Whenever I think of bin Laden, I think of that photo.”
The Brownsville (Texas) Herald, Express and several other newspapers used the same photo on their front pages Monday, and some found new ways to represent it on Tuesday’s covers.
Dunn typically spends six hours designing a front-page cover story and accompanying inside pages. Sunday night, she had only 30 minutes to do it all. As she thought about which photo and headline she would use, Dunn asked herself: What do you want your readers to see when they wake up in the morning?
“Newspapers have the advantage of offering the full story,” she said, noting that front pages are an important part of that story. “You want to be able to be informative, be creative and take a chance on design.”
Use of red, why it’s effective
Red is the dominant color on Express’ front page from Tuesday. When figuring out how to design the front page, Express’ creative director, Scott McCarthy, thought of the iconic Time Magazine covers illustrating the deaths of Adolf Hitler and Saddam Hussein.
Those covers show a single image of each of these men with a large red X over their faces, and they don’t have headlines. (Time plans to use this design again for the cover of its issue about bin Laden, which comes out today.)
“When we started with the image, we all had in our heads the Time magazine cover,” McCarthy said. “Of course the difficulty in producing that was we wanted to do it in a way that paid homage to that cover without stealing it.”
He added a headline, “How We Got Him,” to differentiate Express’ cover from Time’s, and he went through 10 different iterations of the cover illustration.
“We had some that had typewriter X’s through bin Laden’s face, and some with just him being scratched out. We had some with the paper looking like it was torn,” said McCarthy, who solicited input from the paper’s other designers. “We ended up with a single red slash going over bin Laden’s face.”
Many newspapers used red on their front pages — a color they’ve used in the past to illustrate historic news events.
“Using minimal color in a design and focusing on red, black and gray provides drama,” said Poynter’s Sara Quinn, who teaches visual journalism. “There is great contrast between the colors.”
Express, which is The Washington Post’s metro paper, has a 7 p.m. deadline. Because it didn’t run a bin Laden cover on Monday, designing effective front pages for Tuesday and Wednesday was especially important, McCarthy said.
For Wednesday’s paper, McCarthy used the same image as the day before and put it on a bullet with the headline “Who pulled the trigger?” He stacked the words and put “Who” in red.
Quinn thought his use of red worked well. “I like the starkness of the red and black typography,” she said. “There’s a chilling contrast to the pleasant expression on Bin Laden’s face, married with a bloodied bullet.”
Power of short, bold headlines
When designing The Brownsville Herald’s Tuesday front page, Managing Editor Ryan Henry was looking for a headline that relayed anger and justice.
He experimented with different options, including “Payback” and “No More,” but decided on “Retribution” because it was a single, powerful word. Similarly, many newspapers used the word “Dead” as their front page headline on Monday.
Henry placed the word “Retribution” across the widely-used bin Laden photo, making it look as though part of the terrorist’s face had been torn off.
“When somebody dies, you run their face large like you’re commemorating them and we didn’t want to go that route,” said Henry, who occasionally helps design the paper’s front pages.
He placed a scene of Ground Zero behind the word because he “wanted to remind people of what the retribution was for and where this anger has come from and what it means from beginning to end.”
The images and single-word headline helped illustrate a narrative arc, said Brownsville Herald Editor Marcia Caltabiano-Ponce.
“The image, the World Trade Center, the rip, the red and even the choice of those photos at the bottom of the page had to tell a story,” she said by phone.
The 22,000-circulation paper didn’t have time to create a bin Laden front page for Monday, so Caltabiano-Ponce wanted Tuesday’s page to be memorable.
“We were aware that this was going to be one of the issues that people were going to stick in a trunk for their grandchildren,” she said. “We really wanted something that would hold up.”
Combining various design techniques
The Citizens’ Voice’s Tuesday front page combines the use of red, a bold headline and a bin Laden image in a way that differentiated it from many other front pages. It’s one of the few papers that used so much text to illustrate the news.
Citizens’ Voice staff writer Michael Sisak, who designed the page, said the text helped address questions that people were likely to ask the second day: What’s next? And what does this all mean?
“I thought that for day two, we weren’t breaking the news anymore, so we could have a little more leeway,” said Sisak, who sometimes helps design the paper’s front pages. “By that time it was more about the analysis of how the raid happens, what it meant for America and the world.”
Sisak used large black type for the front page headline and an all-red background. “We fell on red because it had this really eye-catching look,” he said by phone. “It was sort of ominous. Some people say it resembled hell.”
When imagining the front page, he kept thinking about the release poster for the “Social Network,” which shows actor Jesse Eisenberg’s face hidden behind this sentence: “You don’t get to 500 million friends without making a few enemies.”
Turning to the poster for inspiration, Sisak used a verse from the Lord’s Prayer — “Deliver us from evil” — as the headline, and laid it over a photo of bin Laden.
“Bin Laden represented the most evil of people,” Managing Editor Larry Holeva said by phone. “I think it showed there was real fear of that evil and that bin Laden’s death ended that terror.”
Holeva said Wilkes-Barre, Pa., where the newsroom is located, is a devout Catholic community. He worried that readers might react negatively to the headline, but the only complaints he got were about the weather map being moved.
When it comes to design, Holeva said, tabloids like the Citizens’ Voice sometimes have more flexibility than broadsheets do.
“Some of the tabloids attempted to do something really big, bold and powerful,” he said. “When I first got here, there was a big push to get more out on the cover. I don’t necessarily believe that’s right. If you have one great story and you can present it in a way that’s really powerful, you’ll do wonders for your newspaper.”