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The Ultimate Power of Words on a Page

Writers take note. The New York Times proves that text still matters

The Unadulterated Power of Words


That’s the best description of my reaction to opening The New York Times on May 24th, 2020. Instead of the typical daily presentation of columns with large headlines, lots of white space, colorful illustrations, and compelling photos, an entire front page of nothing but black and white text greeted me.

It was different.

It was innovative.

It was emotional.

That singular front page emphasized the unadulterated power of words. Isn’t it amazing that simple lines and curves connect to make symbols? That those symbols become “letters?” That those letters combine to make words that have emotional and intellectual meaning? And those words can pierce your heart, touch your mind, and change your life?

Modern writers know that white space matters. We’re taught that brevity, conciseness, and headlines are essential. Too many words make it hard for readers to scan your message. Too much text requires too much “reading.” The history-making May 24th, 2020 issue of The New York Times made headlines of its own because of its focus on nothing but WORDS and the human stories they tell.

If you haven’t seen it, click here. I can’t use an actual picture of the NYT front page as the image for this article because of copyright, but you’ll want to see it.

Words and the Enormity of Loss

The staff of The New York Times debated about how to adequately portray the enormity of loss. They understood what Joseph Stalin had once said,

“A single death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic.”

They knew that a presentation of numbers wouldn’t work, citing “data fatigue.” Graphics weren’t personal enough. Pictures of faces, dots lined up row after row, drawings of thousands of stick figures couldn’t depict the personal stories each situation represented. The NYT decided to go with an “all-type” presentation, WORDS only, like the newspapers of the 1800s. They combed through obituaries across the country and culled poignant phrases that described the deceased. Using lines from obituaries was a way to draw attention to the loss of each individual behind the immensity of 100,000 deaths.

Dan Barry, a columnist for The New York Times, wrote a moving essay to go along with the front page that highlights the personal nature of each death. This is just one paragraph:

“One hundred thousand.
A number is an imperfect measure when applied to the human condition. A number provides an answer to the question of how many, but it can never convey the individual arcs of life, the 100,000 ways of saying good morning and good night.”

It takes WORDS, not numbers, to remind us of the loss of individual lives.

  • Regina D. Cullen, 81, Shrewsbury, Mass., “small in stature but strong in spirit”

  • Clara Louise Bennett, 91, Albany, Ga., “sang her grandchildren a song on the first day of school each year”

  • Thomas A. Real, 61, Newtown, Pa., “was at peace on his Harley”

  • Luke Workoff, 33, Huntington, N.Y., “his relentless passion was for his family and friends”

  • Jesus Roman Melendez, 49, New York, “famous in family circles for his birria beef stew”

  • Louvenia Henderson, 44, Tonawanda, N.Y., “proud single mother of three”

Almost 1000 phrases are listed on that front page. By the time I read them, I felt like I had consumed the grief of 100,000 families. Simple snippets of obituaries created with mere words, make me FEEL what numbers, graphics, white space, and attention-grabbing headlines couldn’t.

It was a powerful lesson for a writer.

Melissa Firman, a fellow Medium writer, asks “What Will Your One Line Be?” and it’s a fair question. If someone had to write a phrase about your life, what would they say? It’s a thought that might make us live better.

It’s also a thought that forces writers to take note. In the midst of this incredible modern world, where we can insert photos into a page, design infographics, analyze headlines, generate titles, insert research links, and spiffy-up our articles with bold print, italics, and

offset quotes,

it’s still the WORDS that tell the story. It’s WORDS that preserve the essence of a life on a page.

Text still matters.

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