I don’t know how to survive the surreality of this moment without The New York Times. It is a lifeline for many of us who are under house arrest. Covering the COVID-19 crisis in real time—without the sensationalism that dominates many news sources—is a tremendous public responsibility, not to mention a salve for all who are feeling anxiety and pain. The layout, composition and design of the Times‘ front page provides readers a daily ration of essential news and is a billboard for commentary, critique and entertainment. Tom Bodkin, the veteran Times Creative Director and Chief Creative Officer, is responsible for physically and conceptually designing the front page so it’s accessible and informative. His job is to guide the readers’ eyes through the intricate hierarchy of Times journalism so the lede story leads, the secondary story follows and so on. He must adhere to the strict format and standards of the Times’ sacred front page while adding novel nuanced visual cues that add to readers’ understanding of the news at hand.
Bodkin does all the preliminary sketching by hand on miniature page templates (or full-size tracing paper called flimsies) that are then translated into fully composed digital pages. “When I break from tradition, as I did on these pages,” he told me, “I’m careful that the departures are substantively driven, that they are made to convey an important message, and that the drama they create is proportionate to gravity of the news being expressed.”
These are a few examples of COVID-19 fronts that he believes have best conveyed the story over the past few weeks. There are some subtle breakthroughs too, including the March 27 chart that illustrates how unemployment numbers have risen so drastically, and the dramatic spike into the nameplate on April 8 (the first time that a graphic ever appeared above the dateline into the logo) showing where the largest concentration of cases can be found in the USA: New York City.
The New York Times front page is, however, more than a record of the day and an announcement of another building block of history—it is what determines how one feels about the world, if only until the next revelation rolls along.