USA Today and the colourisation of American newspapers

I clearly remember the day in September 1982 when my father brought home the new USA Today newspaper. My curiosity about newspapers is not unusual because I come from a family of active news readers. My father subscribed to two dailies and purchased two others from the news agent every day.

USA Today's front page in 1982

USA Today’s front page in 1982

USA Today was groundbreaking in American journalism. Using satellite technology, the paper was distributed to printing facilities nationwide. My childhood self was intrigued by how the same paper could appear the same morning in Chicago and New York City.

Flipping through USA Today’s colourful pages, I immediately noticed its innovative design. The use of colour in American newspapers can be traced back to 1891, when the Milwaukee Journal printed a blue-and-red bar on its first page to celebrate the new governor’s inauguration. Most American newspapers were still printed in black and white in the late 1970s and early 1980s. About 12 percent of American newspapers had some colour in 1979.

Colour and the changing media landscape of the early 1980s

USA Today was designed to capture the busy reader’s attention in the changing multi-media landscape of the early 1980s. kj25_bigThe American media scene exploded at the time with cable television, personal computers, and new media forms such as music videos and video games. In a further nod to the media-savvy reader, USA Today’s coin boxes looked like television sets.

The newspaper’s plain writing style supported its colourful photos, text, and graphics. Reporters condensed news into short and easy-to-read articles. The newspaper is famous for the left-hand side of its sectional front pages that have news briefs, trivia, and poll results.

Industry criticism of USA Today’s design

USA Today’s breaking of design and writing conventions prompted industry debate about how newspapers should attract contemporary readers. Journalists from elite American newspapers criticized USA Today for being dumbed down and acquiescing to popular culture. Ann Hirst, a newspaper advisor on colour, described the industry’s resistance against USA Today’s colour saturation. ‘There was a backlash against USA Today. People would say, “It’s colorful – like a beach ball – but there’s no content.”’

Reader competition, advertising pressure, and USA Today’s national distribution eventually forced the widespread colourisation of American newspapers. By 1993, more than 97 percent of North American newspapers printed news pages in colour. The Wall Street Journal didn’t colourise its front page until April 2002, but the New York Times began using spot colour in May 1993.

Eye-catching layout enhances your message

At Write, our workshops discuss how online and print documents must consider the reader’s needs. Effective use of colour is just one way in which documents can be reader-focused. Colour pulls the reader’s eye toward devices such as photos and graphics. In fact, eye-track studies by the Nielsen Institute have found that today’s busy readers tend to quickly scan the page in an F-pattern format.

Colour in newspapers may seem commonplace today, but it is an important example of how documents must adapt to visually attract readers in our multi-media environment. Documents that are readable and effectively presented should consider contrast, alignment, repetition, proximity, and density.

Colour can be a key part of these design elements. Because readers first notice a print or online document’s layout, make sure that your layout enhances your message.

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