Small Bits of Context

I think history is important, and anything that helps us understand it is vital. Looking through stories for USA Today’s D-Day tabloid I designed and paginated, I saw several information gaps that could be filled in to help readers better comprehend the story.

I came up with the idea of giving stories history notes — small boxes with facts relating to specific stories. I researched and wrote 15 notes and strategically placed them throughout the publication, one note per page. A few are below:

Some of the history notes that ran in the D-Day tab.

Some of the history notes that ran in the D-Day tab.

A brief aside: The germ of the idea came from the writer Harlan Ellison. I’m a big fan of his, and in one of his college lectures he mentions being questioned by an audience member:

“I usually get most of your references,” she says, “but who was that last one? Dock-something?”

“Dachau?” Ellison says. “You mean Dachau?”

“Yes,” she says, “who’s that?

I thought of that exchange while reading a tab story about a soldier who was part of the liberation of Buchenwald. Just as a test, I asked several people in the office — younger, college-educated professionals — if they knew what Buchenwald was. They didn’t.

History notes were inserted into the margins of tab stories.

History notes were inserted into page margins.

The story identified Buchenwald as the infamous slave-labor camp but my added note described it and included the day of liberation and estimated number of deaths. It made Buchenwald harder to forget or overlook, I hope.

After that, I started looking for other note opportunities. Some were purely for points of reference: the value of $50 in 1943, adjusted for inflation today, was one. Bailey bridges were fascinating marvels of simple engineering.

Another was about hedgerows and what a nightmare they were in combat throughout northern France. Hedgerows weren’t the decorative hedges in front of your house, in other words.

Others were U.S. Navy ships mentioned in stories — whatever happened to those ships, I wondered.

Though each note was short and to the point, they gave readers a bit more information that put D-Day in perspective and gave a greater understanding of what it was all about.

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