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From AJR,   December 1997  issue

The Last of the Color Holdouts   


By Sinéad OBrien
Sinéad O'Brien is a former AJR editorial assistant.     

And then there were two.
Like aging beauties getting facelifts, newspapers across the country have gone under the knife. Tired broadsheets and worn out tabs have emerged with fresh faces, all made up with color.

In mid-October, the New York Times gave front page color a nod from on high, emerging with a Technicolor dress and leaving just the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post among major dailies printing black and white front pages.

The New York Times decided to add color a decade ago, according to Managing Editor Bill Keller. But the paper of record needed to put new presses, and a new outlook, in place before going ahead.

"We wanted to do it gradually," he says. "We didn't want to do sloppy color from the older generation."

As that older generation, led by USA Today and its 1982 debut, splashed blues, reds and yellows, the holdouts looked down their noses. At first, to eyes trained on black and white, USA Today conjured images of the Sunday comics, every day. As the shock wore off, papers dabbled with a brighter palette, especially as advertisers jumped at the chance to peddle their wares in color.

"In the '80s everyone was trying to emulate USA Today and did it badly," says David Gray, executive director of the Society of Newspaper Design. "A lot of color was thrown around."

Pressure from the business side played a role in the Times' decision to use color, but it wasn't the only impetus. "Clearly advertisers figured into it," Keller says. "But that's not what drove it through. There is news value in putting color on the front page."

Now that the Times has jumped off the fence, are there any more black and white holdouts? Besides some really small, really local papers, which either can't afford color presses or don't have the readership to support such an investment, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal remain.

The Post is adding color presses and new printing plants at a cost of about $250 million, but the Wall Street Journal is standing firm in keeping color off its front page.

The Journal began running color advertising four years ago for what Dow Jones Corporate Communications Vice President Richard Tofel calls "the usual two reasons: in response to advertiser demands and to take advantage of opportunities."

And though the Journal runs special news sections with color covers, management has no plans to add any color to page one. "It looks pretty good the way it is," Tofel says.

"The Wall Street Journal has made changes big and small and is not by any means a static paper," he says. "Our front page has a classic and distinctive appearance of which we're quite proud."

While years ago USA Today's color stood out, the Journal's commitment to its traditional look now might seem the novelty. "It might be smart to stay in black and white to stay away from the crowd," says Gray. "It shows contrast."

The Washington Post's decision to put color on the front page was quick and easy, says Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. Color will be phased in gradually after all of the Post's new presses are on line around January 1999.

"We wanted to have color on the front page for a long time," Downie says. "But we couldn't until we got the new presses."

Though many people tend to think of USA Today as the color pioneer, newspapers began using color long ago. The Milwaukee Journal laid the foundation in 1891 with a color-bar overlay on its front page featuring the inauguration of Gov. George Peck. Then the Journal printed the first color photo in an ad in the mid-1930s.

It just took time to trickle up to the country's more staid publications. The Los Angeles Times put color on its front page eight years ago. Photography director Larry Armstrong says at first the plan was to introduce color section by section, but then-Editor Shelby Coffey III decided to go all-out and use color throughout the paper from the outset.

"I remember there were a lot of surprised people," Armstrong says, "but no one said, 'This is awful.' "

The sudden surge of color at the Times took getting used to. "There was a time when selecting these color photos was a heavy decision," Armstrong says. "People weighed in on what the colors meant. It was silly at first, but after a while we settled down and got back to content."

Keller says his paper has taken a gradual approach. "We didn't want readers to wake up one morning and think, 'The New York Times has gone circus,' " he says. "We got the chance to watch other people use color and see who did it well."

At the Washington Post, Downie says readers were worried the switch to color might indicate an overall change in the paper. "But we're blessed with readers that appreciate the [paper's] content," he says.

In early October, the Post ran a front page story by Downie and Managing Editor Robert G. Kaiser explaining what changes readers can expect over the next 15 months. The Post will run similar articles each time a new press is up and running.

As for the New York Times, don't expect the Gray Lady to step out in any gauche dress just to show off. Keller says there's a new mantra at the Times about shying away from front page pumpkins in the fall and hot air balloon races in the springtime.

"In the early days of color," says Keller, "we don't want to send the message we're driven by artistic value."