The moment Anna Schuleit Haber convinced a newspaper publisher to let her take over the front page for 26 days went like this: Schuleit Haber, an artist, sat in a meeting the editor and the publisher of the (Fitchburg, Massachusetts) Sentinel & Enterprise.
How about page three? she remembers publisher Mark O’Neil countering with after hearing her request.
Not good enough, she remembers saying. There’s no risk involved.
“In fact, anyone with deep pockets can technically buy page three for a day or longer, but the front page can’t ever be bought,” she said. “It’s the holy grail of the news.”
O’Neil still wasn’t convinced.
Imagine this, Schuleit Haber said: “Let’s say, I were Jackson Pollock at the height of my career. And imagine I went to propose this idea to, say, The New York Times.”
The Times would probably think it was a great idea. And they’d say no. The front page is off-limits.
“But” Schuleit Haber remembers saying, “the fact is, I am not Jackson Pollock. And you are not, well, The New York Times. And that’s the exact reason why we are able to do this project together. Compared to the Times, you’re a small speedboat. You’re not a big ocean liner of a newspaper. Which means you’re still nimble, and you can say yes to this risk.”
And that did it.
Starting July 13, Schuleit Haber’s project took over the paper’s front page with a 26-day art installation devoted to the alphabet.
F is for front
Every time Schuleit Haber creates a large art installation, she says she’ll never do it again. But when the Fitchburg Art Museum started looking for an artist to create something for the city of Fitchburg, she changed her mind. This would be the final installation in a three-year project funded by the National Endowment for the Arts Hometown Grant.
As she researched Fitchburg, Schuleit Haber, who lives in New Orleans, discovered a town that was once an industrial gem of the late 19th century.
“Fitchburg is a challenged community,” said Nick Capasso, director of the Fitchburg Art Museum. “We are the proverbial dying New England mill town.”
But it still had a daily newspaper. That gave Schuleit Haber an idea.
“I spoke with the museum and I told them that I wanted to work not with Main Street or some public plaza, but I decided to expand the meaning of what public art can be.”
She wanted to embed herself in the newsroom, and she wanted to be the visiting artist of the newspaper working with the front page. Schuleit Haber also knew that one day wasn’t enough. Three days wasn’t enough. She wanted to create a natural series that people would understand, regardless of the day they picked the paper up.
She considered the seven days of the week, but that felt too biblical. Also, it was still too short. But the alphabet – the basis of communication, with no inherent emotions or bias, something that the world pretty much agrees on, she said – that fit.
“Twenty-six seemed right,” she said.
Capasso thought the idea was fabulous, but he knew it was also a big ask for the newspaper. He knew that the newspaper’s editor just might get it, though.
“It fits in with their vision of community service.”
Capasso and Schuleit Haber pitched the project to editor Charlie St. Amand. And, she told him, she was only interested in the front page. It had to break the traditional rules of newsmaking.
“I was sure, I have to tell you, that when I proposed this, I would definitely run into the first wall and that would be ‘we love the idea and you’re not going to get the front page,'” Schuleit Haber said.
She did not hit that wall.
St. Amand was intrigued right from the beginning. For years, the paper had done front pages that often felt more like posters — when the Bruins won the Stanley Cup, when the Red Sox won the World Series, on Christmas day and on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
“But for 26 days,” he said, “that was the really unusual part of it.”
Y is for yes, (or mostly yes)
When the Sentinel & Enterprise agreed to give up the front page, it had a few stipulations: 1. The Sunday fronts would remain untouched. 2. They reserved the right to suspend the project if major news warranted it. 3. They’d sign off on the text that ran with each letter. And 4. The newspaper’s flag had to run above the fold.
Schuleit Haber wanted artists from around the world to contribute. So she wrote out a long list of typographers and started pitching the idea to them. She wanted them to create something that would be a gift to the city of Fitchburg. It would run on the front. And she couldn’t pay them.
“And they all said yes.”
Each chose a letter. She runs proofs by them, making sure they see the text that runs with each piece, tying the letter back to the town. Each day’s newspaper also includes profiles of the artists who created the letter. The newspaper is giving 10 percent of ad revenue tied to the project back to the art museum.
Schuleit Haber has worked on the project with interns from Fitchburg State University and Fitchburg High School. And after working in the newsroom, she admires the reporters and editor she collaborates with and is glad for the chance to bring art into their work – even if it’s just for a limited time. She also understands the draw of the daily deadline.
“Being embedded in the newsroom has put me into the heart of the immense deadline energy flow that is present in the daily news,” she said. “I enjoy it, I have to admit. Each work day is a tumbling surge toward the next 5 p.m. deadline, which is quite different from my usual studio practice, my paintings and drawings.”
D is for digital
The front pages are on display at the art museum, but you can also find them on the second floor of the Fitchburg Public Library. Each day, the library’s director, Sharon Bernard, places page one and two on the end caps of the library’s book shelves.
The library has every issue since the paper’s very first on microfilm, Bernard said, and she’d like to create a special reel just with the project.
“I think it’s courageous of the paper to do it because it is something entirely different,” she said. “The front page is the front page, it’s where they put the news.”
“The Alphabet” is an interesting way to get people interested in the newspaper again, Bernard said. And while a few readers haven’t quite gotten what’s going on, it has been a whole new way to engage with readers, St. Amand said.
“We all know newspapers are dying, which is really sad,” Bernard said. “I think it’s one of those things that you’re not going to miss it until it’s gone. Reading it online is not the same.”
She watches people pick up and read newspapers at the library each day, and often, they may not have access to that same news online. But being Web-first is what made it possible for a daily newspaper to give its prime print real estate over to an artist, St. Amand said.
“Our digital component of our business is actually what allows us to use the slow medium of print in a very different way,” he said. “That’s the ironic thing about it. If we weren’t digital, we probably could not give up our front page.”
Running an art installation on the front page for about a month won’t save newspapers, Capasso said, but it is a new way to think about what that space could be.
“It’s about the print edition. It’s about the paper,” he said. “So the art is the newspaper and the newspaper is the art and for 26 days, they’re inseparable, and nobody’s ever done that before.”