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.

Enough with the April Fools’ Day stories

Why newspaper’s April Fools’ Day stories are always a bad idea.

1. They’re intended to deceive. Why would newspapers want to violate its core value of telling the truth? OK, newspapers routinely publish deceptive content — horoscopes and many letters to the editor, for instance — but they’re daily features and most readers know what they’re getting.

2. They have unintended consequences. Readers don’t realize they’re being punk’d, and they respond to the story as if they’re real. As a result, they’re being made to look like fools, and that’s not a good idea. These days, a reader is a terrible thing to waste. Even some media organizations don’t get the joke. Check out the classic newspaper April Fools’ hoaxes at Poynter for examples of unfortunate consequences.

3. The most important reason, though, is that they are so rarely funny or clever. Of the eight stories on Poynter’s list, only two come from American newspapers. There’s a reason for that. There are few George Plimptons on newspaper staffs writing “The Curious Case of Sidd Finch,” which would be an exception to this post if it had been published in a newspaper. Journalists are cynical, dark and X-rated, three traits that don’t translate well to family newspapers. That funny stuff in the bar after work never seems to get past the editor.

Then newspapers get cold feet with what they’ve done and end their stories by telling their readers that what they’ve just read is an April Fools’ Day joke. If you’re going to sin, sin boldly. Maybe you’ll make a future Poynter’s list. Otherwise, order another round for the bar.

News judgment vs. people’s searches

Poynter compares and contrasts newspaper editors’ choices for the top news stories of the year with the top 10 user searches on the most popular search engines.

My friend Julie Moos writes: “The list, based on 247 responses, shows the difference between newsroom leaders’ editorial judgment and people’s reading interests. Four of the stories picked by editors weren’t among the top 10 lists of user searches on Google, Yahoo or Bing.”

I suspect she knows that’s like comparing Osama and Obama. I participated in the editors’ survey for a few years. I made selections based purely on what I deemed the most important news of the year, and I am guessing that most of the editors did the same thing. Had I been asked to vote on people’s reading interests, I would have voted differently. (Although Charlie Sheen would have been on my “search” list and he didn’t show up anywhere, including Twitter. #NotWinning!)

Those surveys — and probably editors in general — have always been culturally ignorant so it doesn’t surprise me that Amy Winehouse, Conrad Murray and Casey Anthony didn’t make the top 10 with the editors.

What I would be more alarmed about as a newspaper editor is another story on Poynter about Google searches. Steve Myers reports the popularity in Google of searches of local news organizations. Out of the 30 markets reported, newspaper websites ranked No. 1 in only 11, including in Charlotte. (The News & Observer was ranked #7 in Raleigh, behind No. 1 WRAL. Interestingly, WRAL, a Raleigh station, was No. 3 in Charlotte.)

I could be misinterpreting the data because people could search for the name of the website and the paper. I hope I am.