Digital content design has a lot to learn... from print newspapers

The physical, printed newspaper has overlooked advantages for providing a smartly-packaged collection of content.

by John McCrory

December 13, 2023

This week The New York Times published its 60,000th print edition, a remarkable milestone in 173 years of printing “all the news that fits.”

Our household is a devoted 7-day a week subscriber to home delivery of the paper even while we use the digital edition every day. As an early adopter whose been on the web since 1994, I may qualify as a digital native, yet I stick with home delivery because print possesses advantages for the experience of content that I feel we in digital design have yet to match. Here are a few aspects of print we can learn from.

Encouraging active browsing

A print newspaper’s front page, section fronts, and inside front page provide the reader a deeper sampling of the content than most digital home and category landing pages do. You can start reading the story or see short summary bullets that hook you into the story from the front page. In contrast, the standard table of contents approach for digital treats stories like products; you see a grid of headlines with feature images, and horribly, sometimes the headlines are truncated. The typical digital homepage is purely a routing experience. The newspaper shows our digital front door can be more than that. It can be a routing and a consuming and sampling experience.

Making content easy to find

Allowing users to navigate content in the order of their own choosing

The 3 dimensional space of the paper creates an index system in which you learn, over repeated reading, where to expect certain kinds of content. The weather, crossword, opinion columns, baseball scores and other features are usually in the same place in the paper each day. Local, national, and international news also often appear in a specific order in the front section of a paper. This spatial ordering in the physical paper creates a system of milestones that the user can navigate through in the order they prefer. 

The newspaper’s physical layout creates a spatial map in our brains that allows us to pick unique paths through the content

For example, I don’t know why, I’ve fallen into the habit of reading the front section from back to front on some days. After scanning the front page, I start with opinion, then page backwards, which usually takes me through the local news first, then national, then international news. But some days I read from front to back. The paper give me both options.

Digital content, it seems to me, struggles to create visual or spatial expectations of where particular kinds of information will be found. Many digital experiences are designed with only a few common paths in mind. The linear nature of our digital content experiences (scrolling and tapping being the dominant methods of moving through content) ironically creates narrow interactive paths.  

Conveying a sense of progress

The printed paper ages as you page through it with the wear and tear of use. You can see and feel which sections you’ve opened and browsed. The sheets of paper fluff out, they shift out of perfect alignment, and they develop minor creases and crinkles. All that gives tactile feedback of the progress you are making through the paper and its sections. When I notice, after lunch, that the Arts section is still crisply folded, I know that it still awaits my attention. If I see the Business section ruffled and read through I know I don’t need to pick it up again.

Also, like a book, when you hold the paper open in your hands, you have a tangible measure of the pages in each hand, telling you approximately how far through the section you are.

On the web, there is rarely any indicator whether you have engaged with a specific piece of content before. Other than streaming videos that show your progress if you leave and return, it is difficult get a sense of how much content you’ve been through.

Newspapers employ design systems that enable nearly infinite varieties of layouts. Every day's front page can be unique.

Design matching the opportunity of the content

Unlike most templated web sites, the layout of the newspaper is different every day. The design follows the content much more than we see in digital layouts. The compositor who lays out each day’s edition of the paper has a system, of course, but it is a flexible system that allows for an infinite variety of layouts. The newspaper designer faces constraints of limited space and has to cope with news that constantly varies in importance. The large, multi-column canvas of the paper provides a fantastic creative space.

One of my favorite features is the double truck: the two-page spread that lives at the center of newspaper. It’s the largest canvas at all, and permits content to spread across the gutter, as in the samples below.

In recent years the New York Times has made a point of exploring the unique opportunities print offers for special features like the recent Bake It Right holiday special, the New York Times for Kids and the annual Puzzle Mania with its Super Mega Crossword. (It’s coming out next Sunday!) Add to that the regular special magazine-style supplements such as the Book Review, the Sunday Magazine and T Magazine. As an example of the versatility print has over digital design systems, during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Times produced At Home, a weekly print supplement with advice, ideas, and activities for a world that was suddenly sheltering inside 7 days a week while we waited for vaccines that would permit us to get out and socialize again.

A notable feature of print compared to digital screens is the different dimensions of space that are used to present different stories (and different components of stories) at one time. The coolest designs still tend to be single-story features. Perhaps ironically, digital design forces the user to move through the story in a linear fashion, typically by scrolling. In print, however, our attention can graze around the page in multiple directions, and jump from one spot to another in a millisecond

The double truck — the two-page center spread — allows content to stretch across the gutter. Used sparingly to powerful effect, it stands out from the rest of the paper’s two-page layouts.
What is our digital equivalent?

Signaling completion

When you’ve read through the day’s paper, you know you’re done. The printed newspaper’s finite number of sections and pages give me the feeling I’ve seen most of what matters today, and I can fold up the paper and put it aside. This palpable sense of completion is rarely available online, where it feels like there’s always more than one can possibly have time for. Though it’s true there is often more to the story and more perspective to get on any story, providing a reader with a feeling of completeness is a virtue of print.

Providing different levels of ad inventory from premium to low-budget

From a glossy broadside that encases the morning paper to a five-line paid obituary, the format of the newspaper allows for countless creative advertising formats. In contrast, digital has tended to prefer simpler formats like banner ads that are cheaper to produce and can be placed in scale across publications.

Don’t let digital triumphalism blind us to the hard-earned virtues of print.

Sure, we can do lots of cool interactions in digital that combine media in innovative ways, but in terms of layout and the overall experience of content, print still wins in my opinion. In particular, the ways print newspapers and magazines package a collection of content are far more sophisticated than digital. Some of that may be due to fundamental differences between print and digital, but I suspect more of it is simply that we aren’t trying hard enough.

When I compare print and digital layouts — knowing full well the constraints of creating responsive designs that can handle countless screen sizes and orientations — it feels to me we are playing it too safe in digital and failing to explore what we can do in digital layouts.

Print has been developing and innovating for a thousand years. There is a digital triumphalist attitude that assumes digital’s interactive multimedia capabilities make print obsolete. I think in digital design we haven’t thought deeply enough about the amazing things print does every day with ease. Digital is still young and naive. We have a lot we can learn from print.