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.

One of the values of Twitter

People often tell me that they “don’t get Twitter.” I’ve gotten to the point where I tell them that they just have to make a concerted effort to wander around and get the feel for it. But the New York Times reminds me of one of the cooler things about Twitter: the ability to talk with some of my favorite authors.

Salman Rushdie told me he enjoys Twitter because “it allows one to be playful, to get a sense of what is on a lot of people’s minds at any given moment.”

I have talked with Chris Bohjalian, Carolyn Parkhurst and Gregg Hurwitz. I had tweeted that I had enjoyed each of their books, and they responded.

I don’t follow them, and our exchange wasn’t significant except that I felt connected with someone who had written something that touched me.

Journalists need to come to grips with the idea that that kind of connection with readers is valuable and shouldn’t be dismissed.

The importance/irrelevance of news ombudsmen

If you aren’t a publisher or the editor, is there a better position than ombudsman to improve the reader experience?

As Dan Kennedy points out, an ombudsman has the time, the access and the platform, to say nothing of the independence to work for the reader, explaining the paper, holding it accountable, and pushing the rock up the hill.

So, why isn’t the public editor of the New York Times more active and engaged? He writes a weekly newspaper column, but that includes a reader response column. His last original column was Dec. 18 about the Penn State scandal. He has a blog, but has only posted three entries since September, and he doesn’t engage readers in the comments that I can tell.

I think this is a job I want.

What is there to write about? A quick visit to Romenesko provides one answer. The exegesis of the best NYT correction ever? Status of the sale of the N.Y. Times Regional Group. And that was just Friday afternoon.

As I thought about this, I wandered over to the Washington Post to see what its ombudsman was writing about. Patrick B. Pexton seems to be more active, but, geez, in his most recent writing, he concludes that the Washington Post is innovating too quickly. The Post may be the only newspaper in the past 15 years that has been accused of that. (Given the demographic of newspaper readers, many of them complain about change. When I was editor of the News & Record, we routinely got complaints from readers annoyed that we would send readers online for more information. “I don’t have a computer, and don’t plan on getting one!” they would say.)

When I mentioned on Twitter that I thought the Times’ public editor had made himself  irrelevant, Craig Silverman pointed me to an outstanding column he wrote for CJR on how ombudsmen can make themselves essential. I would add two points — active engagement on Facebook and Twitter, and an expanded section on involving a news organization’s entire staff in talking with readers.

(Update: Dan Kennedy later tweeted: “Rule No. 6: Don’t write stuff like this,” referring to the Pexton column about innovation.)

I know why more papers don’t have ombudsmen; they would rather have a reporter than yet another commentator. Years ago, the idea was that editors should serve the role of public editor, but you don’t find many editors acting that way. It’s a shame. Serving as ombudsmen at two of the most important agenda-setting news organizations in the country could be a vital role helping both journalists and readers.



New York Times: It’s not personal

My thoughts are with my friends at the New York Times Regional Group, particularly the Wilmington Star-News, where I have several friends.

I know that it’s not personal, it’s business, but this answer from the FAQ the Times and its buyer, Halifax Media Holdings, is surprisingly cold. Many questions were not answered. The most important one — who has a job — was succinct:

Halifax has decided who it will hire. Again, you will be notified within the next 48 hours whether the buyer will be offering you employment.  The New York Times Company has not been involved in that decision.

I suspect a lot of employees are wondering how Halifax made those decisions since one of the FAQs is “When will we meet the buyer?”

Halifax bought the Daytona Beach paper a few years ago and, by some reports, did not improve it. Wilmington is a vibrant, growing city. It has a good newspaper. It needs a good newspaper.


A tipping point for newspapers

Bon Jovi alive!

Jon Bon Jovi is alive, despite Internet rumors to the contrary on Monday. Thank goodness. He posted a photo of himself on the band’s Facebook page holding a handwritten sign that read “Heaven looks a lot like New Jersey.”

Great. But isn’t he a subscriber to the Star-Ledger? He couldn’t find a copy of the New York Times on Monday?