Image averaging is a powerful tool for revealing patterns in large sets of visual data, and one subject to which I’ve been interested in applying it for a while is the newspaper front page. Every newspaper has a layout that remains fairly consistent from day to day while simultaneously varying to accommodate whatever the day’s news happens to be. The masthead will usually stay the same as an aid to branding (though it might move vertically or horizontally or both), and paid advertisements might continue unchanged for weeks on end, but the headlines and pictures will be different for each issue. Averaging a few months’ worth of front pages can vividly expose these patterns, enabling us to see not just what a particular issue looks like, but what a given newspaper looks like in general.
My hope is eventually to use time-based image averaging to create video sequences that show the gradual evolution of newspaper front pages over time, working from existing digital archives. Unfortunately, front pages scanned from microfilm tend to be rotated and cropped inconsistently, and tools for image registration (lining pictures up with each other) don’t seem to work on them. Or at least not yet; this is a technical problem that can probably be solved. In the meantime, though, born-digital front page images don’t present the same problem. That’s not to say they don’t present other problems of their own. There is, for example, a site that features the current front pages of hundreds of newspapers from all over the world, Newseum.org, but it limits itself to a single day’s worth of images at any given time and doesn’t archive anything. Digital archives of current newspapers are an economically significant commodity, so there’s an understandable interest in controlling them—but that can get in the way of transformative uses that don’t merely repackage content, instead generalizing about it and opening it to new forms of critique.
Still, there are ways to build up such data sets, if you’re patient enough and aren’t afraid of a little coding.
So with this blog post I’m pleased to share a gallery of fifty averages generated from the front pages of different newspapers over the past six months. For now, they’re just single still images—which is plenty cool enough. But imagine each of these images as just one frame in a video showing the evolution of the front page design over the course of decades, and you’ll get a sense for where I see this going in the fullness of time. Enjoy!