Viewing News Events By the Headline Size They Deserve

From a story on by Dana Wormald headlined “Editor’s Notebook: The News of the Day”:

Long ago, as a front-page designer for a daily newspaper, I viewed newsworthy events in terms of the headline size they deserved. A typical lead story on a typical news day carried a 54-point headline, with carefully considered size increases signaling to readers that something truly significant had happened….It was my responsibility during the afternoon news meetings to ask the editors just how significant: 60? 66? 72?

Sometimes the event was so extraordinary that my task was simplified by the editor-in-chief as we walked back to the newsroom: Make the headline as big as the page will hold.

I always found that directive a little disconcerting. What if an even bigger story happened the next day? How could we possibly convey that to readers if not through point size?…

The real challenge for the designer of newspaper front pages is what to do if there are two 72-point stories on the same day. How do you play them?

It’s been a long time since I categorized unfolding history in terms of point size, but I returned there in the wee hours of Thursday morning as I watched another faraway war begin, during a pandemic, amid a climate crisis that grows more urgent by the day. And after a weekend of reading about Ukraine and Russia to better understand the origins of a new tragedy abroad, I realized there are too many banner headlines that I haven’t been paying much attention to in other parts of the world: Afghanistan, Chad, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan, Yemen, and on and on.

How big are all of those headlines? As big as the page will hold – and I don’t know how to play them.

Each day, I mentally design my life’s front page – typically a mix of personal, professional, and policy matters along with issues of existential concern, like pandemics, wars, and a changing climate. Immediacy dictates play, and so war abroad may take the lead spot one day only to be bumped down the page by a family crisis or severe weather the next. When the front page feels too heavy, I seek solace in life’s feature sections – sports, food, travel, arts and entertainment. My goal in those moments of escape is not to avert my eyes from suffering, or to forget, but to fend off despair – that precursor to apathy and mortal enemy of hope.

“Across five continents, an endless struggle between violence and preaching will rage in the years to come. And it is true that the former is a thousand times more likely to succeed than the latter. But I have always believed that if people who placed their hopes in the human condition were mad, those who despaired of events were cowards. Henceforth there will be only one honorable choice: to wager everything on the belief that in the end words will prove stronger than bullets.”

That is how Albert Camus, writing for the clandestine French Resistance newspaper “Combat,” ended a series of eight essays published in November 1946 under the title “Neither Victims nor Executioners.” Each ran on the front page. The theme of the essays – “Nothing can justify murder” – was informed by the horrors Camus witnessed during the war and stayed on his life’s front page, in 72-point type, until his untimely death in 1960.

Despite all of my talk about point sizes and front pages, believe it or not I set out to write about empathy – or more specifically the limits of empathy – and I suppose in my own way I’ve done that. I consider Camus, through his writing, to be uniquely empathetic, and I believe the various plagues of the 21st century – some frighteningly similar to those that bloodied the 20th – have given his words renewed importance and urgency.

I’ve been thinking about him a lot lately, especially as a new round of suffering begins in Europe, as suffering continues in Africa and Asia, in North and South America, as I stack 72-point headline on top of 72-point headline, as I imagine ink solemnly pressed to paper.

And sometimes, in moments of unfounded hope, I even see the letters shift and realign into a new headline – a prayer printed as a promise: “In the end words will prove stronger than bullets.”

Dana Wormald, a lifelong resident of New Hampshire, has been a newspaper editor for more than 25 years. He began his career on the Concord Monitor’s news desk in 1995 and later spent more than a decade at the New Hampshire Union Leader. In 2014, he returned to the Monitor to serve as opinion editor, a position he held until being named editor of the New Hampshire  Bulletin.

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