On the Front Page, a Wall of Grief

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From afar, the graphic on the front page of Sunday’s New York Times looks like a blur of gray, a cloudy gradient that slowly descends into a block of solid ink. Up close, it shows something much darker: close to 500,000 individual dots, each representing a single life lost in the United States to the coronavirus, signifying a staggering milestone that the nation is reaching in just under 12 months.

A version of the graphic was originally published online in late January, when U.S. Covid-19 deaths hit 425,000 after four of the deadliest weeks of the pandemic in the United States. Lazaro Gamio and Lauren Leatherby, both graphics editors at The Times, plotted out the points so they stretched chronologically down a long scroll, from the first reported U.S. death nearly a year ago to the current toll of often thousands of casualties per day.

On Sunday, half of the front page was dedicated to the graphic, with nearly a half-million dots running down the length of the page and across three of its six columns. The prominent real estate in the print edition conveyed the significance of this moment in the pandemic and the totality of the devastation.

For Bill Marsh, a print graphics coordinator who helped oversee the execution, the digital concept worked equally well in print. “The fact that we can create something with half a million dots that is visible and readable all in one piece, on one sheet of paper, that people can scan and ponder — it’s made for print, in a way,” he said. “It seems natural for the front page.”

That page has been used to visualize the breadth of the pandemic before. When Covid deaths in the United States reached 100,000 last May, the page was filled with names of those we had lost — nearly a thousand of them, just 1 percent of the country’s toll at the time. And as that number approached 200,000, the lead photograph on the page showed the yard of an artist in Texas, who filled his lawn with a small flag for every life lost to the virus in his state.

But unlike the previous approaches, Sunday’s graphic depicts all of the fatalities. “I think part of this technique, which is good, is that it overwhelms you — because it should,” Mr. Gamio said.

Since the onset of the pandemic, the Graphics desk has been working continually on what editors internally call “the State of the Virus,” an effort to provide visuals that capture the defining moments of this story. The goal of this particular visualization was to add context to a fluctuating death count: April 2020 felt like “the sky was falling,” Mr. Gamio said, but this winter, the graphic shows, has been markedly worse.

“There is just a certain numbness, I think, that is normal human nature when this has been going on for so long, but we’ve tried to just keep reminding people of what’s still going on,” Ms. Leatherby said. “And I think something striking about this particular piece that we were trying to drive home is just the sheer speed at which it was all happening.”

Transferring that effort to the print newspaper — a shift led by Mr. Marsh and Andrew Sondern, an art director — wasn’t without its challenges. For one: The task was “just terrifying,” Mr. Gamio said. “Any time you make anything for the front page, you lose sleep.”

On a technical level, the editors and designers also had to make sure a half-million minuscule pixels from the digital concept would print correctly at The Times’s various presses around the country.

They ran two tests. In one — which, in hindsight, could now double as a scavenger hunt for eagle-eyed readers — they placed a small scattering of dots in the bottom corner of an inside page for a Saturday paper. In another, which involved The Times’s printing plant in College Point, Queens, they ran a few sizes of dots on newsprint that wasn’t distributed.

The final product is the latest of several graphics-heavy front pages over the past year that have chronicled not just the pandemic but also the economic, social and political crises that have burdened the country. In an era filled with so many unknowns, Mr. Marsh said, “graphics can introduce a whole new way of understanding what’s happening.”

They can also speak to the gravity of our times as powerfully as words, Mr. Gamio said. “We’re in an extraordinary news moment,” he added, “and the visual language of the paper should reflect that.”

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