January 21, 2021

Presidential inaugurations are historic, and newspaper front pages have traditionally been a keepsake of the occasion. The pressure is even higher than normal for all the newsroom stakeholders involved in the final decision: How do our visual choices reflect all the significance of the day?

Many papers opted for a traditional swearing-in photo, with varying crops. That image certainly captures the gravitas of the moment, but it also hews to what one might expect to emerge from Washington, D.C.

Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States by Chief Justice John Roberts as Jill Biden holds the Bible during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021, as their children Ashley and Hunter watch.(AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

Focusing on the man with the highest title means Vice President Kamala Harris — whose inauguration marked multiple firsts — was relegated to a lesser position on the page (often below the fold) and in some cases not seen at all. Biden has already twice been sworn in as vice president; Wednesday’s images weren’t significantly different than 2009 or 2013.

A handful of news organizations took approaches that didn’t home in on Biden. The San Francisco Chronicle, which covered Harris heavily during her work as the city’s district attorney and later as one of California’s U.S. senators, featured Harris and second gentleman Douglas Emhoff at the top of the page with Biden applauding to the side.

Front pages showing Inauguration Day from the San Francisco Chronicle, The News-Times and the Tampa Bay Times.

“After much editing by director of visuals Nicole Frugé, considering wire photos, and staff and freelance options, we chose to feature the best image captured by our staff photographer Gabrielle Lurie,” Chronicle creative director Danielle Mollette-Parks said. “It was a joyful, authentic moment featuring both Harris and Biden that we felt our Bay Area audience would connect with.”

The eight Hearst newspapers in Connecticut all featured an image of President Biden looking across the aisle at Harris. The design team is mostly based in Norwalk, though working from home. Wendy Metcalfe, vice president of content and editor-in-chief of Hearst Connecticut Media Group, said she worked with the team throughout Wednesday thinking about how the visuals and headlines would work together to represent “an overall theme of unity.”

“As a community publication, it’s also very important to reflect what local residents are feeling,” Metcalfe said. The News-Times in Danbury had four residents’ headshots on the front.

“Being frank about where we are and where we need to go or not go, we also included the quote about ‘much to repair’ that level set some of the obstacles or opportunities that the new president felt lies ahead,” Metcalfe said.

Front pages showing Inauguration Day from The Detroit News, The Tennessee Tribune and The Free Lance-Star.

The (Poynter-owned) Tampa Bay Times had a striking full-cover photo. “The main thing we decided before anything else is that we wanted Biden AND Harris on the poster front,” said Paul Alexander, the Times’ deputy editor of planning and design. “… History was bigger than the president this time.”

The challenge Alexander’s staff encountered was a 2021 problem: Because of social distancing, finding the right image wasn’t simple. The Times initially designed the page horizontally “because Biden and Harris never really got close enough for a strong vertical.” Alexander said they persisted and found the vertical image for the final front.

The Detroit News led with an image of a Biden-Harris fist-bump.

“She represented so many firsts for the nation that we hoped that she could be a meaningful part of the lead image,” executive editor and publisher Gary Miles said.

The photo the News chose has an iconic quality. “We’ve gotten a strong reaction from the community so far, including single copy purchase requests from other states,” Miles said.

A couple of other news fronts stood out. The Tennessee Tribune is a Black-owned publication based in Nashville. Its cover displayed images of the Bidens and the Harrisses with equal weight. And The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Virginia, curated a selection of images from the day.

One issue the Times encountered: Thursday is not part of its twice-weekly print publishing schedule. “We are considering running individual posters of the president and vice president and some other elements from today’s paper on Sunday to make up for the lost keepsake,” Alexander said.

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Doris Truong is responsible for overseeing Poynter’s teaching across platforms. Her diversity portfolio includes helping newsrooms better cover their communities and providing the resources to…
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