2020 in Buffalo News Front Pages

vicky johnson-dahl
cartographer, dc

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I grew up on the same block as Bills stadium in Orchard Park, New York (I’ve skinned my knees in the gravel parking lot often enough for Bills fandom to be probably literally in my blood), and I am typing this while wearing a 1990 AFC Champs sweatshirt, so I hope that is sufficient to convince you that I am not here to poke fun at Buffalo, the Bills, or the city’s only major newspaper.

Though I no longer live there, I still subscribe to the Buffalo News and get a digital copy of the paper in my inbox. Every day as part of my morning routine, I take a look at the top stories in my hometown. I’ve been a subscriber for a while and noticed a pattern of sorts: no matter what time of year, the Bills are a front page mainstay. It’s not a pattern I see on the other papers I regularly read. But to Buffalonians, it is normal. Take the paper the day after the mob stormed the Capitol: Only two topics made the front page, the riot and Josh Allen (click to enlarge images in a new tab).

The best way to explain it to outsiders is, I think, when you’re flying to Buffalo, you can find your gate simply by the congregation of red and blue apparel. When you land at BUF, you are greeted by a large photo of Josh Allen*. Everyone’s love language is asking a stranger in the checkout line at Wegmans, “How about those Bills?” My contrarian dad wore a Dolphins hat once and the guy at the Kwik Fill refused to sell him a stamp. Not to generalize an entire city, but we love our Bills. It does not really matter how good or bad they are. They are ours, and we will loudly boo you for even mentioning Jon Bon Jovi. Yes, I am being facetious when I call the Bills being good the year’s major story, but only lightly.

Starting January 1, 2020, I thought it might be a hoot to track how often the Bills were on the front page of the Buffalo News, and what that coverage looked like. Because the Bills were always there!
Well, not always. Not even half the time: of the 366 front pages of 2020, the Bills were on 179 for a shockingly low 48.9%. And there was a huge lull in April and May. Of course, the Bills being suddenly good at football was not the only thing that happened in 2020. There is also an ongoing global pandemic.
Tracking coverage of these two stories shows a fascinating (to me, ymmv) progression of how quickly and completely the virus consumed our lives and our consciousness, from a few stock market related articles to, just a few weeks later, total command of page A1 for months. It barely let up for the rest of the year. I don’t expect it to let up for a long time.

What counts as a story? This was subjective. A story about former Bill Ryan Fitzpatrick still being appreciated by Bills fans? Yes, that counts. A story about how the Goo Goo Dolls are dealing with the pandemic? That did not. Those two stories were actually on the same day, September 20th.

The day after that makes a slightly better example, though.

What I did was trace the block of space where each story was placed, red for Bills and blue for COVID-19, and made a note in a table as to what was covered that day. I then layered the blocks, at 10% opacity, for the entire year. Which looks like this.
I also kept a timeline, just a simple binary yes-no as to whether the topic was present. Alongside the timeline I grouped the coverage by month, to give a sense of what Buffalo News coverage of the Bills and the virus looked like, spatially, for those 29-31 days. It’s a big chart!

But before the big chart, couple notes. First, the bar at the top is apparently called a ‘teaser.’ It consists just of a small photo, headline, and sometimes a subhead. It’s where many of the Bills stories were over the year. Even though it’s not really a full story I did count it because I was looking at the whole page and also at the top it’s quite eye-catching. It was also eliminated almost entirely for the months of April and May, presumably to make more room for pandemic news (and probably explains the lull in Bills appearances). Second, you will note on the timeline that specific events are usually highlighted the day after they happened. That’s because that’s when they’d be printed in the paper. Seems obvious, but it threw me a bit when I added the notation.

Okay here’s the big chart. If you click it’ll open in a new tab

Thanks to Katie Kowalsky and Dylan Moriarty for some solid data viz advice and Sarah Bell for the excellent typeface. And thanks to you for reading!

*you are also greeted suspiciously often with the Goo Goo Dolls on the airport loudspeaker but that’s a data project for another day

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