The inner workings of that New York Times SportsMonday cover

The New York Times posted this story Sunday. It’s a Dan Barry piece on the pitfalls of football. It has a gripping lede and what we can call “fairly standard” portrait photography.

This is how The Times played it on the Monday sports front (larger view).

We have had varying levels of heated takes about one-off NYT sports fronts here. There was the time I wrote many words to no logical end about the white-space Cooperstown cover. There was that other time Paul Wallen and Rob Schneider took on the transactions cover.

This is not one of those. You don’t do the same gag twice, you move on to the next one.

Today, we’re offering a straight-up Q&A with Times sports editor Jason Stallman and art director Wayne Kamidoi. It’s for those wanting insight into The Times’ presentation philosophy and staff dynamics. To both who took time late Sunday night to respond, a wholehearted thanks. Enjoy.

How did the idea come about? You have a gripping story. You have some portraits and archive images. Sunday wasn’t a spectacularly newsy day. So going back to the beginning, who first suggested this approach?
Stallman: I first read the piece as a Microsoft Word document, before we sent a photographer to shoot portraits and before our photo editor collected other images. And the words — the words alone — were simply a kick to the gut. So I wondered how we might give that same experience to our readers — what could we do to make the reader see the layout and think, “Whoa, I gotta stop and read this thing.”

Kamodoi:(just to complete Jason’s thought) … even if A-Rod hit his 660th home run to tie Willie Mays, just to make things “newsy.”

How was it done? (Not the part where you put the story on the page, but how was the initial suggestion received, and what sort of internal or intra-departmental discussions needed to happen to land here?)
Stallman: I floated it to Wayne, who walks on news design water daily, and our photo editor, Becky Hanger, who has far keener judgment about visual storytelling than I ever will. They seemed willing to play along, however skeptically. Then T sought approval from my bosses — Dean Baquet and Tom Bodkin. They both signed off; it required zero persuading. They love radical design tactics (or watching me dig my own career grave).

Kamidoi:Jason asked for some type-only prototypes. I gave him about about 10 versions, mixing and matching radical design techniques like drop caps, subheads, 2-line headlines, wide columns, all caps, larger body type and extra leading. Final version: 8.7 on 9.6 NYT Imperial, the standard body type in regular column width. Flavor of the day: Vanilla. No, make that Plain. Jason is so boring. Doesn’t hurt that Jason got the right editors to sign off on his idea — early.

What are those big words above the story? Do you find them distracting and overwhelming?
(Hmmm weird IMO, nobody took this one seriously.)
[Takes off sunglasses. Looks into a different camera.]
Nah, but seriously, how important is the headline for this presentation, and how did you land on this one? It’s a more concise cousin to the web headline, but was that the end of it or did it become a point of discussion?
Stallman: The headline. again, I didn’t want the package to be anything more than Dan Barry’s words. We considered going without a headline, but worried that it would seem … inelegant? clumsy? So we went with a headline that was the simplest and purest essence of the story.

Kamidoi:36 point or 40 point? Decisions, decisions. This just in from Jason: Get rid of the skybox refers, too. (The Sports Monday flag was not moved to the top of the page, but stayed in its regular position about 1.5″ down from the top.)

One thing about the NYT and this approach is, there is a rhyme or reason to it. How do you determine when the time is right to buck design convention, especially on the cover? What’s the bar for taking this approach?
Stallman: We think the time is right to buck convention every day. Can we all agree that conventions are boring? We’re failing at our jobs if we’re not constantly trying to surprise and delight our readers. It has to be done honestly, and it can’t be a gimmick. (I suppose some people might feel like this or some of the other examples were gimmicky. But i really don’t think they are/were.) If we think we’ve come up with an arresting way to present the journalism, we’ll give it a shot. Sometimes we fail.

Kamidoi:This is a case where the print presentation (yes, print is not dead … yet) is more visually impactful and allows the reader to form their own opinion of a feature story. The web presentation was not altered, as it is published with photographs.

Me again: Thanks again to both for taking the time. There’s a bonus question out about reaction today, if there is any, so this could update. Stay tuned.