The decline of the newspaper front page

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.

Sunday sampler

The weather dominates many N.C. papers’ front pages. That, coupled with newspapers putting fewer stories on their fronts, means that I have less good enterprise to offer here. But….



(Image courtesy of the Newseum.)

Asheville: The Citizen-Times does what newspapers can still do well: Look at the big picture and help its community figure out and define a future. Today marks the first of a series of stories to “foster ideas and help find solutions. We want to join Asheville in taking charge of our own destiny.” Today the paper takes the reader on an entertaining history tour.

Burlington: Everyone knows the wheels of justice grind slowly. The Times-News documents a murder case in which the suspects have been in jail since December 2011 and won’t go on trial until 2015. Five years of innocent until proved guilty. Five years of no speedy trial. I have no idea if they are guilty or not, but five years without a trial?

Fayetteville : Do you know that there is a school in Fayetteville called the University of God’s Chosen? And that their football team’s name — yes, they have a football team — is the Disciples? Oh, it doesn’t have a campus or hold any classes and it isn’t accredited. In fact, the 45 people – I’m not calling them students — on the football team is the entire student body. Well, you have to read the Observer’s wonderful story about this university football team.


Sunday sampler

Asheville: I would not be surprised to learn that this story on online shaming is the best read story in the Citizen-Times. Two guys, owners of a popular West Asheville coffee shop, wrote anonymous misogynist online posts about their sexual conquests, and they were outed. And the Internet does what the Internet does. It responded and then doubled back on itself. A fascinating story of online shaming.

Greensboro: Remember when the GOP was the fiscally conservative party? Because the Republicans, which control both houses of the legislature in Raleigh, couldn’t finish their legislative session on time, it cost taxpayers an extra $2 million. You won’t be surprised to hear that the Republicans think it was money well spent. You also won’t be surprised to know that the polls don’t think much of the legislators’ performance.

High Point: The Enterprise reports that the City Council is going to pay more attention to the city’s Convention and Visitors Bureau. Traditionally, CVB’s aren’t watched closely.  “Council members said they’re concerned about the High Point Convention & Visitors Bureau’s use of $437,000 from its reserves on items that included expenditures associated with its new offices and its regional visitors center. According to the city, some of the expenditures were not listed in the CVB’s annual budgets, which the council approves each June.”

And not on the front page, but how I could not include the best letter to the editor ever in the News & Observer today.

Sunday sampler


Greensboro: “Driving while black.” Doubt it? Don’t. The News & Record is sponsoring a community forum on the state of the young black male this week. Consequently, it has several stories and columns in the runup. The best is on the front page, which only makes sense. It starts with the story of a UNCG student who carries a book bag on campus whether he needs it or not. “But he thought the sight of him and his bag put others at ease — and might prevent him from being singled out by police.

I wish everyone would read this story with an open mind about how so many of our fellow citizens feel…and must act to survive.

Raleigh: Whoa. The N&O reports that Tony Tata, retired General, former N.C. transportation secretary and regular guest on Fox News, had extramarital affairs with two women in his Army career. And there is some mystery around a forged document in the Army’s investigation of him.

Asheville: The Citizen-Times reports that some high schools are no longer recognizing valedictorian or salutatorians. (The reasons don’t really make a lot of sense to me. They want to “recognize more students.” And a new grading scale makes it hard to designate a No. 1.) I, of course, never had to worry about it one way or the other.

Gaston: The Gazette does what only newspapers seem to do in towns — examine whether government agencies are operating in public or conducting business it shouldn’t in private. You won’t be surprised to learn that many of the public bodies in Gaston County hold an awful lot of closed meetings in which minutes aren’t available.

Sunday sampler

Both Asheville and Fayetteville have interesting stories about military vets who took the wrong path. I like the Asheville Citizen-Times’ in particular because of the way it starts.

“CLYDE – We want him to be a bad man, a lunatic even, this unbalanced man who holed up in a church and died after a shootout with police.

“But the truth, as it often does, lies much deeper. Finding it requires a journey through combat zones, a brain injury, lost memories and layers of self-loathing and inner turmoil brought on by post-traumatic stress.

“Nothing is simple about the case of Wade Allen Baker, the 44-year-old Army veteran who drove to Maple Grove Baptist Church in Haywood County on Aug. 19 and then apparentlycalled 911 to lure police there, claiming four people had been shot and killed. Police responded in force, and after a brief standoff, Baker lay dead.”

It’s a powerful beginning and addresses head-on the complexity these cases take. Read it all.

The Fayetteville Observer’s starts slower and takes a while for you to see what post-traumatic stress led a soldier to end up in prison for shooting at police and firefighters. The story is equally sad and compelling.

(Courtesy of

(Courtesy of

Charlotte: The Observer has a fine story about border children that are fleeing gang violence in Central America and seeking shelter in the U.S. (I featured its first story about the child who is the subject of today’s story in a July 2014 Sampler.) As Washington discusses how many Syrian refugees the country will accept, states are already trying to figure out how to absorb immigrants from the south. “Charlotte CAN members say they’ve had many victories in the past year, including successful court petitions that permanently reunited families. But there have been heartbreaking moments, too, including kids who brought report cards to legal meetings, desperate to believe good grades would win them a right to stay with their parents.”

I posted the Observer’s front page to note that this is the only full story on the page. Everything else promotes stories inside the paper. Nothing philosophically wrong with it, but it’s hard for the content to make an impact when it’s not on a front page. This is part of the new design of both the Observer and the News & Observer. With respect, I don’t care for it.


Getting into the new friend zone

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The above clip, from “Tombstone,” is classic. Val Kilmer is Doc Holliday, dying from TB, is resting after a gun battle alongside Wyatt Earp against the Cowboys. The key scene is dialogue with his friend Jack Johnson

Johnson: Doc, you oughta be in bed, what the hell you doin this for anyway?

Holliday: Wyatt Earp is my friend.

Johnson: Hell, I got lots of friends.

Holliday: I don’t.

Like Johnson, I got lots of friends. Thousands, if you count social media.

I was thinking about that last week. I was writing an email to a faculty member at UNC-Chapel Hill, and I included a link to a Q&A with Mathew Ingram. I started a sentence with “Ingram is a virtual friend of mine” and then I paused. Virtual friend? What the hell is a virtual friend?

He’s either a friend or he’s not.

I’ve not met Ingram, but we’ve “talked” on Twitter. He has flattered me by retweeting some things I’ve written, and I once said that I could build entire lessons based on his articles for GigaOM. But I know little about him other than what he writes. There’s maybe a 25 percent chance I’d recognize him on the street.

I know him on the busy streets and dark alleys of the Internet.

So I asked him if we were friends.

That pleases me, and I deleted the word “virtual” in the email.  But it also got me thinking that I have more friends I’ve never physically met than those I know in real life.

I have 4,800 followers on Twitter and 15,000 on Facebook. I don’t follow them all back because I have to manage my time somehow. Do I know them all? Of course not. Do I consider them all friends? No. Does Taylor Swift consider her 63 million Twitter followers friends? Maybe a handful. The rest, I suspect, she considers them “the audience.”

Two anecdotes:

A few years ago on Facebook, I engaged in regular political discussions/debates/arguments with a half dozen people I’d never met before. They were all smart and civil and personable, but when one of them suggested a meetup at a restaurant, I begged off. I enjoyed talking politics with them but I didn’t want to actually meet any of them in real life. I’m an introvert.

On the other hand, a few days ago I contributed money to Driven Media, a website dedicated to journalism for women by women. I gave because I like the cause, but mostly because a student  I follow on Twitter– Samantha Harrington —  is involved. We’ve never met in person, although we’ve walked the same halls at UNC-Chapel Hill. I can tell from her Twitter feed that she’s smart and sassy, and her efforts are worth nourishing.

Twenty years ago, I wasn’t friends with anyone I didn’t know personally and in the flesh. Now? That’s flipped on its head, thanks to the networks provided by social media. My friends help me, teach me and make me laugh. I know many of my “virtual” friends better than I know most of my own neighbors.

It’s a different kind of friend zone, and I like it.

Sunday sampler


Wilmington: The Star-News has an interesting piece on what liquors we buy in North Carolina. “Statewide, drinking habits do tend to follow patterns, sometimes unexpected ones. Rural counties like Bertie, Greene and Hertford have an outsized appetite for gin, while communities in Dare, Currituck, Onslow and other coastal counties imbibe rum at an accelerated rate. Local bias also emerges — Tennessee whiskey sells better in communities closer to North Carolina’s western boundary with that state. In the Triangle area, it’s the hip rye whiskey splashing into tumblers a lot these days.”

Asheville: You might think that agencies that get millions of dollars of public money should be an open book on how that money is spent, but no. The Citizen-Times highlights a continued problem with government transparency. “The area’s most important tourism promoter, the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, is run on public money. But details on how the bureau spends a large part of that cash is kept private.” It’s apparently legal, but bad government management. The bonus in the Citizen-Times story is the inclusion of emails in which the Convention and Visitors Bureau try to disguise the bonuses employees get.

Charlotte: Did U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger improperly transferred the money from his former real estate company to his 2012 campaign? He says no, of course, and now the FBI and the IRS are investigating.


When advertising looks like news

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I like dogs. I like Miss Babe Ruth, the canine mascot of the minor league Greensboro Grasshoppers who is pictured above. Miss Babe Ruth works baseball games, fetching dropped bats and delivering baseballs.

But I don’t like the entire front page of the sports section of the News & Record featuring — no, honoring — Miss Babe.

Oh, wait. It isn’t the real front page of the section. It’s a full-page advertisement paid for by the baseball team, not that that will be immediately obvious to readers who are used to seeing actual sports stories on the page. (At the top of the page is a line that reads “Paid for by the Greensboro Grasshoppers,” but newspaper designers know that few readers will see that.)

You have to turn to page 3 to get to the real sports page, pictured below.

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When I was an editor, I routinely fought – and lost – arguments over whether to display paid advertisements on the front page. (I was against them). I also opposed spadias, which are paid ad pages that wrap around part of the front of a section, covering the news content.

I had two arguments:

First, they got in the way of people wanting the news. Why put an obstacle between readers and the reason they bought a paper?

Second, when the advertisements are disguised like news, it’s an effort to deceive readers. Why would the newspaper want readers to feel as if we were trying to pull a fast one, I would ask.

(Here is support for that argument as it applies to websites: “Slightly more than half of consumers don’t trust sponsored content, now often called native advertising, and 59% believe a news site loses credibility if it runs articles paid for by a brand, according to a study released Wednesday by content marketing startup Contently.”)

The counterargument, of course, was always that these ads represent money. And those days — like these days — newspapers need money.

And the fact is, whenever we published these ads I objected to, we got few complaints from readers. I suspect that few readers of the paper will complain this morning. Some are likely to find the feature on Miss Babe Ruth endearing.

But I can also imagine casual readers looking at the front page, seeing nothing but a story about a dog and putting the section aside as irrelevant. I can imagine devoted sports readers being confused, but then turning inside to find the real sports section and thinking, as I did: “I wish they had used these two dog pages to give me more real sports stories.”

Am I an old crank? Possibly. But I get disturbed when paid advertising is paraded as news content, even when it’s innocuous. Yet one more line between advertising and news is erased.

So does John Oliver: “I like to think of news and advertising as the separation of guacamole and Twizzlers. Separately, they’re good. But if you mix them together, somehow you make both of them really gross.”

Sunday sampler

In case you didn’t know, many N.C. newspapers will tell you on their front pages today that school starts this week. But there are other front page stories worth noting.

Image courtesy of the

Image courtesy of the

Raleigh: Despite a new design that severely limits the number of stories it publishes on the front page, the News & Observer has two good ones. The first is one we all suspected: emails from powerful conservatives around the state all supported the ouster of UNC president Tom Ross. The reason is less clear — no one in power has actually ever given a reason — but it does appear to be blatantly political. He has a liberal background, even though his policies do not. With this crowd, not being one of them means you’re an enemy.

The second story is about the state’s planned expansion of the lottery. Many of us can recall the time 10 years ago when Republicans opposed the lottery as sinful gambling. Now they embrace it so closely they want to entice more citizens to spend money on this loser’s bet.

Durham: One thing the legislature has done so that its members can crow about how they’ve reduced taxes is send the cost for services to cities and counties. The Herald-Sun writes of the Durham school system’s concern about funding drivers’ ed. Is it the government’s responsibility that students learn how to drive safely? Given that I must share the road with them and teens are responsible for many accidents, I’d say yes, but then, I’m believe that government is good.

Charlotte: The Observer has dug into U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger’s land investment company and how it treated its investors. There’s no smoking gun — it is being investigated by the FBI — but it’s interesting nonetheless.


When institutional memory dies

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Updated with obit below.

Don Jud, who passed away Aug. 9, was a big deal in Greensboro. He taught economics at UNC-Greensboro for 33 years and formed and led the Center for Applied Research. He received the highest civilian honor bestowed by the State of North Carolina, The Order of the Long Leaf Pine.

His paid obituary, published in the News & Record Saturday, includes this line: “He compiled the monthly Triad Business Index and was considered the area’s economic guru, affectionately called “Economan” by the News and Record.” (Bold is mine.) Read the whole thing to get a better sense of his importance.

He was a big deal, and yet, the News & Record hasn’t written a news obituary about him.

News obituaries are written by newspaper staff members when people of community import die. They put the person’s life and career into a communitywide context. For instance, here is a news obit on Julian Bond. (Paid obituaries are written by family members and, in the harshest light, considered advertising.)

Dr. Jud was 71. He hadn’t been out of the limelight for long. The most recent mention of him in the News & Record I could find on Google is a year ago. But he was quoted in business and real estate stories in the paper for decades. He shouldn’t be so quickly forgotten.

Here is my point: This is what happens when newspapers are cut so close to the bone that they let go of their institutional memory.

I mentioned on Facebook being surprised that the paper hadn’t written an obit on Dr. Jud. One of the staff members at the paper responded: “Not many left here who knew of him.”

It may seem minor — news staffs are stretched thin and have other important stories to report and write. But this cuts to the core of whether a newspaper knows its community and respects those who have worked hard to build the community.

Update: The managing editor of the paper, Steven Doyle, tells me via Twitter that a news obit on Dr. Jud is in the works for tomorrow’s paper.

Update 2: This fine news obituary was published Aug. 18.