The front page

As this will be my last post I would like to say thank you to Hatje Cantze and Nadine Barthe for inviting me, and to those who have taken the time to look. I would have liked to write more about the trials of newspaper picture editing, but the job as it were got in the way. So, for this final musing, I am writing about the front page photograph. Out of all the pictures in the newspaper, this must be the most important one.

We had an unusual about turn with the front page picture last week with the Babchenko story, he was the Russian journalist who faked his own death with the help of the Ukrainian secret service. On that day there were pictures around of protesters attaching photographs of Babchenko to the gates of the Russian Embassy in Kiev, it was a front page story but they weren’t good enough front page pictures. When images from the press conference started to come in where he appeared alive, we had an unbelievable story and a great picture to go with it.

We had an unusual about turn with the front page picture last week when Babchenko appeared alive at a news conference.

We begin to discuss the front page picture in our midday editorial meeting. This is when each of the section editors – home news, foreign, business and environment runs through their top stories, the graphics editor explains what information they will be illustrating through maps etc and I make a presentation of the 20 best pictures I have seen so far that day. The key stories are roughly sketched out on the layout – the editor will usually be able to identify what might make the front page splash, what will go on page three, and which stories should open the foreign and business sections.

A classic news picture filled the front when the politician Amber Rudd resigned.

A classic news picture filled the front when the politician Amber Rudd resigned.

On a perfect day we will get a few different things out of the picture show. Hopefully, we will have decided on our Eyewitness picture, the photograph that fills the double pages of the centre spread from Monday to Friday. If there isn’t a stand out image that can fill such a huge space, then finding it will hound me for the rest of the day. The show may also reveal a number of standalone images that can run in the paper on their own merit and sometimes images can prompt a story to be written. There are times however when the nine to ten thousand images I’ve looked through in the morning yield very little in terms of photographs that are any good to print. This seems extraordinary, but believe me, most of the photography I look through is neither good enough nor relevant for the paper.

Guardian centre spread 26 March 2018

A memorable image of a news event that fills the space with interesting detail.

Finally, I hope to get a heads up on what our front page picture might be. There is a certain sense of security knowing more or less what might go on the front, but not all stories will be picturable. A frequent, unnerving scenario is leaving the midday meeting not knowing what will go on the front and not having an Eyewitness.

Guardian centre spread 21 March 2018

This beautiful and striking portrait holds the space despite being deceptively simple.

On some days we have a news piece that has been photographed, other days we have our own pieces of journalism for which we have commissioned photography, but there are also days when the stories on the front can’t be photographed, in those instances we are looking for a news worthy image that will hold the front page with just a caption. It can be a real challenge to find such an image and on these occasions we often have to do a lot of lateral thinking to come up with something. We also have to think about the tone of the picture and how it will work next to the other stories on the front.

We sent our photographer Graeme Robertson to Jamaica to shoot this portrait for the Guardian's ongoing Windrush investigation.

We sent our photographer Graeme Robertson to Jamaica to shoot this portrait for the Guardian’s ongoing Windrush investigation.

The paper goes through many iterations as the day progresses and the stories on the front may be switched as their importance wains or are replaced by breaking news, but even if the main story stays the same we usually wait to decide on the image until late in the afternoon, so we are sure we have seen everything on offer and have chosen the best. It amazes me that sometimes the front page can be completely up in the air until the very last moment when it all miraculously falls in place. Those days leave you reeling with the feeling that you’ve only just gotten away with it, a combination of being high with exhilaration and completely shattered. The question of what makes a good front page picture is I think answered by how immediate its message is. It is all about impact and how we can make the Guardian stand out against competition on the newsstand. For my colleagues working on the website these concerns are from another era, but for me this way of thinking about how pictures function when printed and left out in the real world are what makes the job so interesting.