I picked up The New York Times from outside my door this morning knowing that the lead headline was going to be wrong. I still read the print paper every morning – I do read the electronic version, but I find that my reading there tends to be more self-selecting than I’d like it to be – but lately I find myself checking the Web before settling down to the paper and a cup of coffee. On the Web, I’d already seen the predictable gloating and hand-wringing in evidence there. Because of some communication mixup, the papers went to press with the information that the trapped West Virginia coal miners were mostly alive; a few hours later it turned out that they were, in fact, mostly dead. A scrutiny of the front pages of the New York dailies at the bodega this morning revealed that just about all had the wrong news – only Hoy, a Spanish-language daily didn’t have the story, presumably because it went to press a bit earlier. At right is the front page of today’s USA Today, the nation’s most popular newspaper; click on the thumbnail for a more legible version. See also the gallery at their “newseum”. (Note that this link won’t show today’s papers tomorrow – my apologies, readers of the future, there doesn’t seem to be anything that can be done for you, copyright and all that.)
At left is another front page of a newspaper, The New York Times from April 20, 1950 (again, click to see a legible version). I found it last night at the start of Marshall McLuhan’s The Mechanical Bride: Folklore of Industrial Man. Published in 1951, The Mechanical Bride is one of McLuhan’s earliest works; in it, he primarily looks at the then-current world of print advertising, starting with the front page shown here. To my jaundiced eye, most of the book hasn’t stood up that well; while it was undoubtedly very interesting at the time – being one of the first attempts to seriously deal with how people interact with advertisements from a critical perspective – fifty years, and billions and billions of advertisements later, it doesn’t stand up as well as, say, Judith Williamson‘s Decoding Advertisements manages to. But bits of it are still interesting: McLuhan presents this front page to talk about how Stephane Mallarmé and the Symbolists found the newspaper to be the modern symbol of their day, with the different stories all jostling each other for prominence on the page.
But you don’t – at least, I don’t – immediately see that when you look at the front page that McLuhan exhibits. This was presumably an extremely ordinary front page when he was exhibiting it, just as the USA Today up top might be representative today. Looked at today, though, it’s something else entirely, especially when you what newspapers look like now. You can notice this even in my thumbnails: when both papers are normalized to 200 pixels wide, you can’t read anything in the old one, besides that it says “The New York Times” as the top, whereas you can make out the headlines to four stories in the USA Today. Newspapers have changed, not just from black & white to color, but in the way the present text and images. In the old paper there are only two photos, headshots of white men in the news – one a politician who’s just given a speech, the other a doctor who’s had his license revoked. The USA Today has perhaps an analogue to that photo in Jack Abramoff’s perp walk; it also has five other photos, one of the miners’ deluded family members (along with Abramoff, the only news photos), two sports-related photos – one of which seems to be stock footage of the Rose Bowl sign, a photo advertising television coverage inside, and a photo of two students for a human interest story. This being the USA Today, there’s also a silly graph in the bottom left; the green strip across the bottom is an ad.
Photos and graphics take up more than a third of the front page of today’s paper.
What’s overwhelming to me about the old Times cover is how much text there is. This was not a newspaper that was meant to be read at a glance – as you can do with the thumbnail of the USA Today. If you look at the Times more closely it looks like everything on the front page is serious news. You could make an argument here about the decline of journalism, but I’m not that interested in that. More interesting is how visual print culture has become. Technology has enabled this – a reasonably intelligent high-schooler could, I think, create a layout like the USA Today. But having this possibility available would also seem to have had an impact on the content – and whether McLuhan would have predicted that, I can’t say.