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.


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.