Here’s today’s cover of the Sacramento Bee, which dedicated most of its front page to the major water restrictions put in place in California by Gov. Jerry Brown.This is a story that deserved a big treatment on page one, and the Bee delivered.
This didn’t happen by accident. The editors and designers knew what to include to convey the importance of the situation to readers. The front page is phenomenal for a number of reasons, but it’s also very simple, and it shows how including certain elements can make all the difference. Student editors could easily do the same thing for their own newspapers. Let’s break it down piece-by-piece and show how the editors put it all together.
Let’s begin at the very top of the page:
The words in red are a story label. They do exactly that: label the story so the readers know this is a part of a bigger issue. The drought in California is ongoing, and the Bee has been reporting on it for a while. This makes it easy for readers to understand that this is not an unrelated story to the larger issue.
Below the label is a story summary. Maybe a reader is passing by a newsstand or sees a paper sitting on a table and can only glance at the front page. These summary elements give the reader the story in a nutshell – what happened and what is happening. The details are in the story itself, but the summary can give enough information to pull the reader in.
Next up is the headline, and it’s a good one:Two words. Big and bold. Headlines don’t get any better than this. Keeping the headline short requires you to increase the size a little bit to fill more space, which then adds to the dominating effect on the page.
But just in case the casual reader doesn’t know what these “unprecedented cuts” refers to, there’s also a subhead below that adds context to the headline:
Combine the dominant hammer headline with the subhead, and you get “Unprecedented Cuts: Sweeping Order Slaps Reductions on Urban Water Use.” Headlines and subheads need to compliment one another – the headline draws people in, and the subhead gives more information.
And don’t forget, we’ve already put that story summary above the headline, which adds to the clarity and understanding of the story. The drought is a huge issue in California, and for the first time, people will need to limit their water use because of it. It’s a confusing and scary situation for people, so this front page does the best it can to give information instead of dramatics. The goal is to help anyone who picks up the paper understand what it means for them.
Of course, a story is nothing without pictures. But how do you illustrate a topic like an ever-worsening drought? You could show Jerry Brown standing behind a podium making the announcement, but that would be pretty boring. You could just show a snow surveyor walking along a dry patch of land, but most readers won’t have any context to where this area is or why it is significant that it is dry. The Bee went for the much more effective before-and-after shot:
Same man. Same location. Different circumstances. Seven years ago there was plenty of snow up there. Today, it’s bone dry. Now the reader has context to the vanishing snowpack in California, which then lends better understanding as to why Gov. Brown has enacted those water restrictions.
But the Bee wasn’t done. They added a couple more elements to their story package.
On the right side of the photos, they put bullet points with the details of the water restrictions. Again, people are going to be confused, angry, or upset by the restrictions, and they need to know right away what those restrictions will be. Instead of forcing readers to search through the text of the story to find out all of the details on their own, the editors of the Bee have pulled the relevant points of the cuts and placed them in bullet points on the front page.
I can’t stress this enough: the drought is a complicated story with implications for everyone in the state. The newspaper needs to lead the way in helping people understand what it will mean. Most newspapers would have opted for scare tactics – a photo of a dried up riverbed, or a pull quote of someone stating how dire the situation is. They could easily have enlarged Brown’s quote about how this is “an historic drought, and that demands unprecedented action.” But I’ve always been a proponent of information over decoration. A pull quote only serves to dress up the story and take up space. But those bullet points provide context and information quickly, which is much more important.
And finally at the bottom right corner of the layout, the editors are teasing the related editorial on page A8, and pushing readers to Sacbee.com with promises of video of the snowpack and a city-by-city guide to water use. News does not exist in a vacuum; it is always evolving, and your readers need to be updated. Putting interactive elements on the web gives a compliment to your print coverage, and tells readers where to go to get updated, real-time information.
Today’s Sacramento Bee does it the right way. It provides good information, context, and related stories, all while packaging it in an eye-catching way. Other newspapers could take a lesson on how to cover such a major story.
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