When I started in the newspaper business 40 years ago, the norm for medium-sized newspapers was six stories on the front page. Then it drifted downward to five, then four, then three. Now in the six of the state’s larger cities, two and three stories on the front are the usual, particularly on Sunday, the largest circulation and revenue day of the week.
Below is a sampling of last Sunday’s front pages, courtesy of the Newseum.
Three main reasons why this is happening:
First, in an effort to save money, newspapers have gradually made their front pages narrower. Starting five stories on the front makes the page looked cramped, and makes it difficult — believe it or not — for readers to find stories.
Second, in an effort to save money, newspapers have gradually cut back their staffs; many newsrooms are half the size they were 10 years ago. Fewer reporters means fewer stories are being produced. Many newspapers can’t afford to allow reporters enough time to produce in-depth Sunday front stories.
Third, in an effort to increase readership, newspapers have been told that readers like large photos and so photos are played larger and, presumably, more dramatically. In addition, many newspapers have increased the space given to promotions to other pages in the paper. Three or four promos seem to be the norm. The result is that they use space that could be used for stories. (Newspaper marketers also know that many many readers look only at the front pages of sections and rarely go to inside pages.)
Let me stop you before before you think this might be for single-copy sales. Sales from the box and the stores are plummeting.
I long for the days of more choices on the front pages. If your two or three stories on the front page don’t interest me, then I’m not likely to buy your newspaper
In Greensboro, if I don’t care about a murder case or the mayor’s primary race — only 4% of potential voters voted yesterday — then I doubt I’ll buy the paper. In Raleigh, I have a choice between a bluegrass festival and gay couple’s anniversary celebration. In Fayetteville, I can read a rainy weather story, a wire story or an odd story about a college no one has heard of. (The college story is fascinating: A “university” that fields a football team, but has no campus, no classes and no accreditation.)
But here’s what makes me scratch my head. Two years ago, 78 percent of newspaper readers were 50 years old and older. Now, I’d wager that to be more like 85 percent. These are people who are sticking with the daily newspaper because they like the ritual or they like the habit or they like the paper.
I suspect they realize they are getting less for their money. Fewer front pages stories of interest — fewer choices — suggest less relevance in their lives. (It seems to me that the trend is also away from hard-edged enterprise stories and toward more feature-ish stories, but I could be wrong about that.)
In a way, I’m mourning the good old days, and I hate to feel that way because that’s not me. I’m really mourning the loss of choice. I’m worried about the stories I’m not getting — the enterprise story that will inspire me to do something or the investigative piece that is important. Are they on the local news front, which has less readership than the front page? Are they moved to another day, which has less readership than a Sunday?
Want to know what’s
funny sad ironic? Journalists aren’t actually making these decisions. Business managers are. They’ve got to keep the profit margin high. Cut the number of pages and sections. Cut the newspaper staff. Then try to sell the idea that you’re providing something better or something that readers want.
I don’t think it’s working.