How not to use the front page

One of the reasons that I “sample” only the Sunday front pages here in the Sunday sampler is because that is the day in which newspapers aim to publish their best work. For me, the best work is content that I didn’t know already. I enjoy the element of surprise and discovery. Because so little real “news” in the traditional sense happens on Saturday, the best newspapers fill that space with enterprise local work. Most weeks, it is the best day for compelling stuff.

And it begs the question about other days of the week.

Sam Kirkland describes his reaction to the big headlines at newspapers across the country on the day after the Supreme Court ruling on Affordable Health Care.

The great irony, then, is that the louder a headline shouts, the less likely I am to read the story, because a story commanding a 120-point headline likely commanded my attention yesterday, when it was fresh. That makes some newspapers on a day like last Friday’s little more than kitsch, aged without the yellowing or brittleness, naked despite the adornments in all-caps.

Exactly.

Interestingly, a Pew survey showed that 45% of Americans either didn’t know what the Supreme Court ruled or they thought the Court rejected the Act. Who knows what the figure would have been without those big headlines.

When I made the front-page decisions, I always struggled with “news” that had already been out for hours and hours. At our 4 p.m. meetings, I routinely asked, “Yes, it’s news now, but will it be news in 14 hours when the paper is delivered?” We talked about what we were telling readers that they didn’t already know? Could we spin the angle forward to tell the story in a way people hadn’t heard? Was the news historic enough so that people would want the paper as a keepsake? (Rarely…and usually involving a famous person’s death.) Do we have anything better?

It would be interesting to know if newspaper sales bounced up on the day after the Supreme Court ruling. (I doubt it.) It would also be interesting to know what would have happened had newspapers published a smaller story beneath the front-page fold. (Nothing, I suspect.)

In the end, the six-column display was probably wasted on most readers. When it came down, I was on vacation and in a house with three different newspapers — the New York Times, USA Today and the local paper. I didn’t read the health care coverage in any. I already knew what I needed to know from television or from reading earlier stories. And the way those papers played the story was a lost opportunity. They all played it large, pushing just about everything else off the front page. One of them could have published something that would have surprised me and drawn my attention.

From Kirkland, again:

But that thrill of discovery — of an international event that was sadly absent from my previous day’s Twitter feed or of a below-the-fold culture trend that I never would have guessed existed — was gone last Friday. Nothing on the front page made me feel like I had to know more.

2 thoughts on “How not to use the front page

  1. Awesome post, John, and spot-on (kudos to Sam Kirkalnd, too). This is a real problem that newspapers are still grappling with: unlike a generation or so ago, they’re no longer the only news provider (far from it), yet they keep adhering to this “newspaper of record” nonsense that insists on putting day-old news out front, repeating something most readers already know. I almost never read print anymore, but when i do, i feel like I’m reading things I’ve known about for 24 hours or more. It’s maddening, and it makes the print product far less attractive and necessary.

    Old habits are hard to break, but newspapers have to find ways to advance a story, get in front of it or provide something readers just don’t know yet. Otherwise, they’ll continue to spiral downward in irrelevance,

  2. I think the key is to find real people through which to tell the story. In our paper, I not only read reaction from a wide variety of sources but also great stories about real people and what this ruling meant to them. And the photos that accompanied the story were local as well. I think they were taken at a clinic that offers health care to uninsured and under-insured patients.

    Also, People want to know how the decision will impact them. We are very self-centered. If you tell me my school district is increasing taxes, what does that mean for me? If the weather has ruined the spinach crop, how much more am I going to have to pay for the produce?

    I hate to say it, but I think that we are often more worried about how something will affect us than other people. And so we should be telling the story of the ruling in a way that explains its impact. And as a newspaper, you need to make me care. There has to be something at stake. Otherwise, I won’t read it.

    Three words I always tell writers: Make me care. Make me want to pick up the newspaper and read your story. Make me want to turn the page of that book or scroll down that computer screen.

    Not sure I’m making sense, but thanks for listening.

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