Page design was easier in the old days

June 12, 2017

By Peter Wagner
Paper Dollars

A century ago, when newspapers printed their pages with nothing but black ink and included few pictures or illustrations, creating the average page layout was easy. The back shop would start with six extremely wide blank columns and fill them with as much body type as possible. Often, the only story separation came in various headlines. Many of those headlines would be hyphenated in the strangest places.

But computer composition, offset printing and a much more sophisticated audience has changed all that. Today’s page layouts must be hip, colorful, informative, truly interesting and capable of attracting the reader’s attention.

The challenge of community newspaper design is more than just being contemporary and visually exciting. Today’s active lifestyle constantly pulls the newspaper reader’s attention away from even the shortest story. That’s why all well-planned page design includes numerous points of entry to redirect the reader back, time and again, into the story. These points of entry can include a large letter at the beginning of certain paragraphs, quote blocks, quizzes, sub-heads, supportive sidebars, photo cutlines, graphs and illustrations, to name a few. The more points of entry, the more likely a reader will read the article from beginning to end.

I asked Briana Howell, our lead page designer, about the process she goes through to create strong page designs for our N’West Iowa REVIEW. The goals, she told me, are many. Well-crafted pages need to be attractive, interesting and informative as well as fair and balanced. The elements must work together to make every story personable and an enjoyable read.

“Front pages can be very difficult to design,” said Howell.

“I usually start with three to five stories for a front page because I’m working with limited real estate. We lose a lot of space to the masthead at the top of the page and a strip ad at the bottom.

“It can be a balancing act to make sure each story has enough text and art to assure the desired readership.

“For the main package in this Most Moisture Ever example, I had only stock snow photos to work with for art. At that time (March), snow didn’t seem super relevant because the title was Most Moisture Ever, not Most Snow Ever. Therefore, I wanted to make sure the headline and art were portraying the same message, which is how I arrived at raindrops.

“I used two shades of blue to add some visual interest to what could have been a very black and white page. To ensure the shape around the body copy was recognized as a raindrop, I gave the main package ample white space and I repeated the raindrop shape throughout the rest of the story. There is even a raindrop behind the large capital letter at the front of the story as a point of entry.

“For the secondary stories, I used visuals to help break up the text and add balance to the page. These visuals included a map, a telling number and a teaser driving people online.

“Not all front pages are created equal. We tend to make our sports section fronts less feature heavy, but many of the same design rules apply. You need to start your play of the main package above the fold and use headlines and subheads and other standard elements as points of entry. It is important to work your design so not to have butting headlines.

“The main package on this sports cover has minimum but effective design elements. The color scheme is red and blue to go with the story about a man from our coverage area running for the USA in South Korea. The runner is cutout because the background of the photo was very busy and I wanted to focus more on the individual. I placed an arrow behind him to add movement to the photo and to point to the start of the story. I added the quote box to balance out the text.

“The secondary stories on the page all have art to separate headlines, breakup the text and to add balance to the finished design. In our sports section, we add story tags to all the articles, except the sports editor’s column. These story tags serve our readers by making it easier to identify the sport, day and team. They also add another visual point of entry to the page,” Howell concluded.

These comments from Howell show how our page designers invest detailed thought to the importance and flavor of each story. Good design takes time and effort, but it can greatly enhance the reader’s desire to read even the longest story.

But consistent creative design requires a commitment from the designer, the newsroom, staff photographers and management. It requires regular training and a real passion by all involved to provide the community with only the best-designed pages.

Still, it can be worth it. Many potential readers decide if they’re going to pick up a community paper by the design of the front page and continue to read it because of the layout of the inside pages. © Peter Wagner 2017


Peter W. Wagner is founder and publisher of the award-winning N’West Iowa REVIEW and 13 additional publications. You can receive his free monthly GET REAL newsletter, written exclusively for state press associations, by contacting your association manager. To get his free PAPER POWER email newsletter for publishers, editors and sales managers, email him at The two monthly email newsletters contain information completely different than the monthly Publisher’s Auxiliary column and are available without charge or obligation. Wagner can be contacted by emailing or calling his cell at 712-348-3550.


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