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Beacon blog: Learning from Newseum

Even with all the ways to access the Beacon that I talked about here two weeks ago, one place you won't usually find us is on paper (unless you print out an article yourself, of course).

Despite our primarily digital form, I remain interested in the printed word and accomplishments in news design in whatever form it takes. Just as many of the reporters and editors who work for the Beacon used to write and edit for print, my work background is in newspaper page design. One way I stay up to date in the world of print is through the Newseum.

The Newseum is a Washington, D.C., attraction that I have not had the opportunity to visit. Yet. According to its website, it opened April 11, 2008, and hosts galleries and exhibits related to all forms of news and media issues, as well as a gallery of 9/11 coverage, "the largest and most comprehensive collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalism ever assembled," and a memorial to journalists who have died on the job.

The Newseum's homepage, like most museum sites, focuses on current exhibits and attractions, but one link on the right side that should not be missed. Labeled "Today's Front Pages," it leads to a treasure trove of newspaper design.

The link first displays a grid of front pages of that day's newspapers, sorted alphabetically by state, then city, then newspaper name. Friday, Aug. 27 netted 881 front pages from 77 countries. These pages can be sorted and displayed in several ways. You can also click through the small thumbnail version to see a large version of the page. If news of regional or national significance happens, it's fascinating to see how different papers in or near the news decided to play the story the next day.

But that's not all! Newseum editors choose a Top 10 of pages on a certain theme (Friday's was "The incredible, inedible egg," about the salmonella-tainted egg recalls). Additionally, the Newseum keeps an archive of some past significant events, ranging from such breaking news as front pages from Sept. 12, 2001, to political events like the 2008 election and 2009 inauguration, to sports news like Barry Bonds' 756th home run.

It is interesting to choose a major event and walk through possible thought processes of the editor or designer -- looking at the elements of the big story as well as the other stories important enough to make the front page that day, and trying to see why the people in charge of presenting the news made the decisions they did. Why make that photo so small? Why a two-deck headline? Why are they arranged in that way?

Most of the time, designers consciously choose what elements of a story to use and how to employ them for the purpose of drawing the reader's eye to the story and making the information easier to read. In other words, most of the time something isn't done only "because it looks good." Examining pages after the fact and thinking about why they look the way they do -- especially comparing how different papers played the same story -- is like an athlete who watches tape of past games to see how he reacted and how he might have reacted better.

There are a lot of differences between news in print and news online. I firmly believe that design and presentation is vital in both places. I've done my best to translate my skills in print design to the Web, and I strive to develop those skills every day. That's why I keep looking at tape.

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.

Brent is the senior data visual specialist at St. Louis Public Radio.