The making of the front page
When I was a kid delivering The Denver Post, the top part of each day’s front page unfailingly included a headline and article about some vote in the U.S. Congress. Nearly every bit of every front page in the country in those days was consumed with weighty, serious news about government.
A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that two of the big-city newspapers that circulate up here each chose not one, but two sports stories as their top stories on their front pages.
Four or five editors get together at The Union at 5:30 p.m. each day to decide the stories that we’ll feature on the front page of the next day’s edition. We also decide which stories get the high-profile spot in the paper – page one, above the fold, where the story will be seen in the window of our sales racks.
The decision always involves more art than science, and our 15-minute meeting seeks to answer this question: Among the stories we have available today, which are most likely to interest the widest number of our readers?
We start with our mission: We are a local newspaper. That means that we really want page one to be dominated by stories about Nevada County. (If we have more than one Associated Press story on page one, we feel we let you down.) We usually don’t even talk about this during our meeting. We agreed to it long ago.
We also do a little math. We usually can get five or six stories into the space we have available. If we have a particularly long article and don’t have much room to continue it on another page, we may be able to get only four stories onto the front page. If we have all short articles, we might use seven.
We need at least one strong local photo on page one. What do we do if the strongest photo accompanies an article of modest interest? Argue among ourselves, mostly.
We don’t try to gauge the cosmic importance of an article. If you’re not interested in a story, you won’t find it important. Many are the newspapers which crashed from the misguided (and utterly arrogant) belief that journalists can force-feed what they consider to be important news to their customers, even after their readers say they are bored to tears.
We think that you’ll find an article important and interesting if it touches your life.
We know, for instance, that a substantial number of our readers commute to jobs outside the county. That means stories about improvements or problems along Highway 49 often end up on page one.
We know that growth and protection of the community’s environment are important questions to many people who choose to live here. Articles about those subjects are likely to be placed on page one.
We know that articles about the detailed workings of the government, however, often aren’t interesting. If a story includes the word “mitigation,” it’s pretty certain that we’ll find somewhere other than page one for it.
Just like our readers, we enjoy stories about real people who overcome a challenge, bravely battle something in their lives, or make a difference in their community. If we have one of those articles available, it will probably be a strong candidate for the front page.
And sometimes, we put a story on the front page just because it’s something that everyone in town is talking about – those mysterious “wrong number” calls this week, for instance.
But George Boardman, the veteran newsman who’s our assistant city editor, reminds us with a laugh during many of our 5:30 p.m. meetings that “news judgment is all relative.” The decisions about the front page can’t be better than the stories we have available. And some days, the news isn’t much.
Why do we have weak news days? Sometimes, we’re short-staffed as the result of vacations and days off among our eight-person reporting staff. Some days, we planned on something that we couldn’t pull together in time. And some days just don’t generate a lot of news. (Monday in Nevada County often is News Lite, a fact reflected in our Tuesday edition.)
About one day a week presents a dozen good candidates for page one and some good stories end up on page two. In most weeks, another day presents us with the hard decision of deciding which of a weak lot of stories should lead the newspaper. The rest of the time, the balance is about right.
In truth, however, we’re guessing about what you find interesting. If you think a front-page story is particularly interesting – or, heaven forbid, particularly boring – we’d like to hear from you. Drop me a line at 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945
John Seelmeyer is editor of The Union.
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