On designing historical moments at The Washington Post
I never intended to become an A1 designer. I wanted to be a sports designer. I love the chaos of the newsroom and the nightly deadlines, but sports provides more freedom to tell stories differently every night, usually with beautiful photography and clever headlines.
My first night designing A1 of The Washington Post gave me new appreciation for news design. I was an intern being given a chance to handle A1 and there was a breaking story. A plane crash in remote Alaska had taken the life of former senator Ted Stevens. We had no images, but we knew that we wanted to give it major display. I spent an exhilarating evening cobbling pieces together, and by the time our first edition closed, I was a front page designer.
Since then, my streak of designing A1 on big news days continued. An earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan. A midnight showing of “The Dark Knight” that took a deadly turn. The 2013 inauguration of President Obama. The day a young man took a gun to Sandy Hook Elementary. A tragic finish to the Boston Marathon. All front pages that happened on my watch.
But two stories didn’t just break news. They made history. In May 2011, when Osama bin Laden died, and Monday afternoon, when Jeff Bezos bought The Post.
These experiences have taught me how to handle the pressure that comes with presenting some of the world’s most important moments. Here are a few things I’ve learned:
Remain calm I learned a long time ago that I am not great in times of crisis. I found a mouse in my kitchen Monday morning and spent the next four hours hiding in the bakery below my apartment until someone else took care of the situation. I am good at freaking out.
But when it comes to sitting in the A1 chair during breaking news, there’s one thing to remember: the paper always comes out the next day. We’re professional journalists. It is our job to report the news to our readers. There are very few times in history when the paper did not come out the next day. If the Wall Street Journal produced a paper after 9/11, with their newsroom feet away from the World Trade Center, we can produce a newspaper on even the tightest deadline.
Get used to people looking over your shoulder On big nights, one of the most popular places in the newsroom is the A1 desk. There have been moments when I’ve turned around to find a semi-circle of a dozen people behind my chair. Those people are there to help. They aren’t there to criticize or annoy. They’re doing their jobs, just like you are doing yours.
For the most part, learning to just deal with the constant feeling of claustrophobia has made my life easier. That being said, there are times when I’ve just needed a moment — a moment to process all the information that has been thrown my way, a moment to breathe, a moment to actually get work done. At those times, there are a few tricks that work for me. Generally, you can just quickly and calmly explain that you need a few minutes and people will understand. If that doesn’t seem to be working, standing up almost always will. It forces people to give you more space and gives you a chance to literally step back from the situation. What doesn’t work: becoming so overwhelmed that you momentarily panic. It adds stress to an already stressful situation and takes the focus away from the story at hand.
Manage your time A huge part of an A1 designer’s job is doing things for other people. Assigning refers, jumping stories, sending photos to be toned, making headlines fit — those are all essential parts of my work that enable others to do their jobs. For our deadlines and workflow, I’ve found it’s best to get the general layout of a page ready and circulated with all the major elements (photo choices, headline sizes, story hierarchy) in place. After that, I move on to the housekeeping aspects. If I get all of those things out of the way, I can spend time perfecting design elements without having a laundry list of things to get done.
Process only what you have to and deal with the rest later We are in the business of breaking news. Unfortunately, there are very few times when a six-column story is a result of a happy occasion. These historic breaking news days have a tendency to bring us to the edge of human understanding.
We may never understand why some horrific events happen. Whether an act of nature, man, or God, it is our job to present the facts to our readers in the best way possible. We have to sort through photos of carnage, debate the weight of “massacre” versus “rampage” in a headline, and update death counts between editions; all for the sake of telling the best story possible.
But we’re not just journalists. Everyone seems to have a story that really resonates with them, beyond just the immediate sadness and confusion. For me, it was Newtown. I realized that in my few years as an A1 designer, I had built up an armor against the harsh realities of daily life. And that day, the armor came crashing down. I had a very hard time staying focused on the task at hand that day — it showed. I was distracted. I would tear up at the details editors were giving and couldn’t focus on a single image for too long.
We do have to do what we can to keep our emotions in check while we do our jobs. For me, that means only processing what I have to in order to tell the story and letting everything else go until I leave work.
Always have an extra set of eyes on the page Designing the front page usually means there are plenty of eyes on what you’re doing. But here, I’m talking more specifically about visually attuned eyes. Having someone around to bounce headline styles off of, or to check your spacing, etc. can make a good page into a great one.
When you become the story, all of these things are that much more important. As has been widely reported, Monday afternoon, at 4:15, I (along with every other Washington Post employee) was asked to report to the auditorium for a 4:30 announcement. We all listened as Don Graham told us he was selling The Washington Post. This was a different kind of breaking news. There was no tragedy to respond to, yet we had just witnessed history. When the meeting adjourned, we each had to decide how to deal with what we had just heard.
For me, that meant heading back to my chair on the fifth floor and designing the front page of the Washington Post.
I was reminded just how difficult it can be to be covering news when the story has such meaning to your own life. I still haven’t quite processed what I heard in that auditorium Monday afternoon. But, just like every other day, the paper showed up at my apartment yesterday morning. Now, it’s time to design another front page.
(Katie Myrick is a news designer at The Washington Post and editor of snd.org. Follow her on Twitter @myrick.)