The front page still matters, part 2

Update: A story by a Charlotte Observer writer about the study made it onto the N&O’s front page Tuesday.

“Students reading A Beka’s textbooks learn that God created the world in six days 6,000 years ago, Noah’s Ark is a true story that happened during the Great Flood around 2500 B.C., and the flood’s runoff formed the Grand Canyon. The textbooks are also laced with critical comments from a deeply conservative perspective.”

The News & Observer published that tidbit Sunday in a story about a League of Women Voters’ report on fundamentalist Christian schools getting tax money from the state. Quoting the N&O, “they’re not providing anything close to the ‘sound basic education’ the state Constitution promises to North Carolina’s children, according to a new report from the League of Women Voters.”

It’s an important story that reflects the values of state legislators, bad education policy and a misuse of tax money.

The story was published on page A16, along with the Letters to the Editor. *

I thought of my colleague Andy Bechtel’s blog post last week titled “The Front Page Still Matters.” He wrote:

“Nowadays, many of us primarily read our news not by turning pages, but by scrolling on smartphones and laptops. We get news in a timeline format on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Algorithms influence what we see there.

“Yet many readers still rely on the front page in print — with stories selected by editors — to reflect the important news of the past day and the day ahead. These readers see the front page as an indicator of a news organization’s values. What does this newspaper care about? What are its priorities? How is it serving the community? ”

I’m one of those readers. The front page has power — it draws attention. It is where newspaper editors place their best stories, stories they think should be read because they are important to the community or they’re interesting.

There’s a reason that people want stories about their successes on A1 and stories about their failures on A16. Readership drops dramatically for pages and stories inside the paper. When I was an editor we had surveys showing that 90 percent of our readers looked at the front page. Fewer than 50 percent looked at the editorial page. I don’t know about A16.

I appreciate Andy’s point that many people get their news from social media. I’m one of those, too. I “found” this story Sunday afternoon on Twitter, although I understand it was on the N&O’s website Saturday afternoon. It seemed as if some people found it worth retweeting.

I’m glad that many newspapers — including the N&O — publish some stories online when they’re ready, rather “saving” the story for the newsprint edition. It’s an understanding that print, web and social are different and that their readers should be served differently.

When I ran a newspaper, I understood that I was a gatekeeper and I took the role of selecting stories seriously. Now that I’m a regular newspaper reader, I pay for and appreciate the role of the gatekeeper.

That said, for social media, I rejoice in the adage that “If the news is that important, it will find me.” Most of the time it does because on Twitter and Facebook, I have thousands of gatekeepers. I cherish their role, too.

* It’s possible the Barnett story is in the editorial section of the paper because he is the assistant opinions editor. News and editorials are different sections and traditionally independent of each other. Some editorial columns should be published on the front page, in my opinion.

** I understand that I sound as if I’m critical of the N&O’s news judgment. I suppose I am, but it’s a mild, mild criticism. Every reader has opinions on the news judgment of editors. Ninety-five percent of the time, I agree with the N&O’s call. In case you’re interested in what was on the Sunday front page, here it is. I don’t quibble with a single selection. In fact, I read the landslide story on Friday, I think.

Courtesy of the Newseum