Can your CMS do 150-point headlines?

Take a look at Poynter’s nationwide collection of print edition front pages from Sunday, Feb. 2, the day after the space shuttle disaster. Some of the bold banner headlines read: “Columbia is lost,” “It’s Gone,” and “What Happened?

All of these headlines are big — almost universally over 100 points and probably almost 300 points at several papers. There’s a good reason for this giant type, and it is not just increased single-copy sales the next morning. It is about using design to give readers context. The headlines’ words are about the shuttle tragedy. But what their big bold blackness really says is, “Pay attention. This is one of the biggest stories of the year.” I believe readers are not only acquainted with this system, but expect it: If there’s no enormous banner headline on the front page, then it was a fairly normal day in the world yesterday and I can move on to the sports section and my bowl of cereal.

Did online newspapers take advantage of this well-established design principle on Feb. 1, using banner headlines to communicate the story’s importance? Generally, no. In Poynter’s gallery of online front pages from that day, there are a few news sites that played the story appropriately for its magnitude:,,, and, among a few others. But many sites treated the story like, and even — switching the shuttle story into the top position on their front page but leaving their site with a standard design. Nothing about those sites’ look that day — not a very large headline, nor a very large photo, nor a very large set of related articles — conveyed the importance of the story the way newspapers’ print editions did the next morning.

Of course, screen sizes force headlines on the Web to be far smaller than the largest headlines in print. And some Web sites — perhaps ones with a local focus — genuinely chose not to use a banner headline. I support a conscious design decision like that, even if I probably wouldn’t have done it that way.

But I suspect that at more than a few news sites, online producers did deem the Columbia story worth special treatment until their content management systems stopped them. Too many content management systems dictate an inflexible design on news sites’ front pages. Photos can only be certain shapes and sizes and placed in certain positions. Teasers to related articles can only go in certain places. Packages for special projects or big news stories can only be created in certain ways. Headlines can only be one of two formats, and they certainly cannot be a 36-point banner headline. Such are the constraints of our content management system at work, which is why we built most of the front page manually on Feb. 1 and three days thereafter.

However, many other sites run with content management systems did not or could not shift into manually-coded mode that Saturday. I believe the rigidity of those systems prevented some news sites from telling the disaster story appropriately. A Web front page should be an empty canvas to paint on, not a pile of predefined pigeonholes waiting to be colored by number. That unimaginative coloring by number shouldn’t be acceptable any day of the year. Certainly not on the day seven spacefarers died pushing the limits of human possibility.

Comment by kpaul, posted February 13, 2003, 5:52 pm

I hear ya and definitely agree with you. Alas, though, I don't think the big companies 'get it' yet - other than the revenue numbers...

Comment by Martin, posted February 18, 2003, 8:32 am

Print papers, are largely manually laid out - particularly front pages. This happens whether or not there's a '150pt headline' day or not. So there's no additional effort involved in making that change.

Unfortunately, web editions are not manually laid out, and newspapers cannot afford to do so - even if you reduced them down to a small number of editions a day (rather than the continuous publishing flow demanded by users). The cost of the people required to do that reliably without screwing up is not sustainable, especially as people don't pay for online editions.

You're right - companies only get the revenue numbers. That's why they exist. They're legally mandated to maximise investor returns.

Comment by Dave Enna, posted February 18, 2003, 1:03 pm

It's very important to realize that the newspaper is a printed medium with 100+ years of display history that has evolved very slowly. So readers understand what headline size means. Also, of course, headline size is important for selling newspapers from racks, but I agree that is not the newspaper's major reason for the very large headlines. Large headlines in newspapers are studiously tracked ... "we did 125 point on that story, so this story deserves 150 point", and so on.

Online, I am not convinced that LARGE headlines are needed or really meaningful. Online front pages - no matter the site - present a summary of the inside content. The presentation is offerings, not the full story. Very large headlines can actually get in the way of presenting information (pushing good content too far down on the page, for example).

But your point is true about the need for a 'clean slate' that allows news Websites to abandon the usual in the case of the very unusual, such as a major story like the shuttle crash.

One point about Websites and database tools is that the existing tools are probably best for very fast udpates. In other words, if you want to get a story up fast -- important on the Web -- you should use the existing publishing system. Get the story up now and worry later how it looks (within reason). I would prefer fast, accurate reporting over impressive display in the first several hours of a big story.

After the first few hours, display becomes more important, and the same-size-fits-all display hampers many news Websites.

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This page last modified on Thursday, December 13, 2012 at 6:47 pm