David Arkin's blog

Let’s stop putting standalone photos in front page center pieces

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What’s the most important decision you make on your front page each day?

To me, it’s the center piece. The package on the front page that is supposed to signal to readers the content that has the most significance to their lives. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the biggest news that occurred the day prior. That’s already been posted to the web. But the center piece defines what you, as an editor, believe is the single most important topic in your community that day. It’s a big decision. Big news that occurred that previous day could clearly find its way into that space, but it should definitely not just repeat what happened, but rather, it should advance that story forward.

That’s why it absolutely drives me crazy when I see standalone photos in that center piece position.

Sarasota cover for Arkin
This package in the Sarasota Herald-Tribune used quality photography to illustrate a story about a new approach to arrests and detaining procedures for the mentally ill. Readers have come to expect that photography will enhance quality journalism, rather than simply dressing up the front page of the paper.

It used to be — or maybe still is in some newsrooms — that the best art is what gets the best play on the front page. As a former designer, I loved that approach because it gave me the ability to play up images in a way that could really make a page sing. But it wasn’t what was best for readers. A photographer that is tipping a reader inside for more coverage or a single moment captured in a single image or two, while interesting and potentially newsworthy, isn’t the sort of thing that should dominate the front page.

GateHouse Media spent more than a year in a deep research project across many markets studying what would make readers more apt to love their print product and stay with it for years to come. One word kept on coming back over and over throughout the research: context. Not really that surprising. Overall, readers reacted negatively to poster-board front pages that just teased inside or the usage of 5- or 6-column photos of content that wasn’t the biggest news story of the year. They wanted story starts that provided context. They wanted to know stuff and wanted to feel like the front page was delivering value.

Standalone photos happen on front pages for a host of reasons. In my opinion, more than not, a story falls through and as a backup plan, an editor has to revert to a standalone photo option. Sometimes, editors plan on it because it’s a big event, and other times, it’s a beautiful photo that drives the decision.

I’m not saying newspapers shouldn’t ever run a standalone photo. But it should be rare. Like once a month rare. And here’s why.

The day of leading with the best photograph is over. Readers expect more from their newspaper, and a photograph — even when it captures a news event — is still just one element of something larger that could have been offered if a powerful center piece would have been produced in its place. A good center can still definitely deliver a terrific photograph, but it also can offer content that makes a reader smarter, tells them something they didn’t know and advances the story. None of that can be accomplished with a standalone photo.

Wilmington cover for Arkin
The prominent photo in this Wilmington StarNews package connects readers with one of the main sources featured in this story on refugees.

I think it’s important for photographers to recognize readers’ changing expectations. They want great photography, but they expect it with great journalism. That means when you spend time documenting journalism through images, appropriate space should be created inside the paper to showcase that work. Oftentimes we hold out space for photo pages for special events. That’s fine, but our best photojournalism doesn’t always come at graduations and festivals; rather it’s documentary photography that is connected to the bigger journalism we do. Use photo galleries as a platform to really drive those moments in life, like graduations and festivals.

This is really about encouraging newsrooms to write big stories consistently and stressing that photography needs to be a big part of that. I’m not saying a great photo that has nothing to do with a story can’t find its way onto 1A. It can. But thinking about content in packages is the wave of the future. A strong multimedia package with timelines, maps and video that encourages more time spent with our content both digitally and in print is where we want to be. To achieve that, planning is critical, and involving visuals in that process is so important.

The stronger our packages are the stronger the experience for our readers will be both in print and online. So, say goodbye to standalone photos and hello to great packages that include incredible photojournalism.

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