Jun 13, 2009

Editing the new front page

Almost every newspaper site has "most viewed" widget on its front page. The list is mostly a passive tool - reporters and editors can throw a few search engine-friendly words into a headline or lede to try to generate buzz, but I doubt this is very common on the news side. Instead, readers largely drive the list and, once a story makes the ranks, its popularity becomes almost self-fulfilling: readers see Story A is the eighth most viewed, so they get curious and click on it, and suddenly it's the fifth most viewed. And up the chain it goes.

Which makes me think that newsrooms need a more robust plan to drive the stories out onto the Internet that they deem most newsworthy (not necessarily most click-worthy), using the same care and judgment they apply to building the front page of the printed edition.

Editors need to take the lead (and some surely are). They need to be the ones using the Twitters and Facebooks and blogs to push the front page out. Don't leave it to reporters to promote their own work (which is generally a bad idea anyway) on personal Twitter accounts; don't wait for bloggers, aggregators or algorithms to find the stories; and don't let the popular become the enemy of the good.

Promote the paper's editorial judgment and, in doing so, promote the things that separate newspapers from other media: traditions of accuracy, institutional memory, standards, ethics, beats, etc.. Flaunt it. If you have an A1 blowout on a corruption scandal that's not riding the "most viewed" tide, then advocate for it on the social networks and blogs (and to producers like me) with the same intensity used to get it onto A1 in the first place.

Don't wait to find out what readers think is news. Show them. And, in doing so, build an active relationship with the audience, rebuild a sense of mission in the newsroom, and show readers why being a witness to events is different from reporting on them.

In the past, the printed front page stood as a newspaper's collective assertion of editorial judgment. Story placement, photos, headlines... these were the visual and written record of what the newspaper could do, and how well it did it. Now the front page has fragmented and spread. The rigid architecture is gone and an organic one has taken its place.

Reporters are now being asked to write more frequently, more briefly and on shorter deadlines. Copy editors are being asked to work faster and more efficiently to get copy online. Editors - their ranks thinned, their influence diluted, their resources strapped - have tried to keep the paper's bearings. Now editors must actively and collectively assert their judgment to create front pages that unfold onto a complex, multidimensional online environment.


Anonymous said...

Completely agree. Editors need to edit. Much is left to the readers to determine the content and flow of a website, and to some extent a newspaper. Corporate weasels with margins of glory have rendered many editors afraid. Web width shrink, layoffs, elimination of sections and a myriad of other changes all send signals to editors that must say "The reader cannot handle one more change".

To that I say BS; strap on a pair and make your product relevant again or I will go someplace else.

And this trend of commenting? Who gives a crap what readers think about the news?

Anonymous said...

AMEN!!! Promote the real news stories that reporters bust their asses on -- and that have an effect on the communities they cover.

There's no need to bring extra attention to the giant-spider-eats-stripper-who-stole-a-baby wire copy or the latest from Jon & Kate. Readers who want that shit will find it anyway, and it's widely available outside of newspaper sites.

Anonymous said...

Readers will read what interests them. It's arrogant to think that just because you promote some "important" story people will want or like it. In fact, it's the same kind of arrogance that has helped to kill print. Print-side editors think that just because they put a story on the front page of the paper, people read it. Simply not true, and the Web proves it. People got tired of the boring crap that ends up on the newspaper cover, and they stopped buying the newspaper because of it. Editors are out-of-touch. The fact that the most-read online stories so rarely match what is on the cover of the newspaper is proof of it.

Anonymous said...

Hey 10:32, I think everybody realizes readers will read what they want. But there's no reason not to encourage them to read the more "serious" stuff. It's just internal advertising. Why is that arrogant, to advertise the stuff you've got?

Gary Scott said...

10:32 p.m.: I don't agree with the arrogance charge. If news organizations are going to make choices about what to cover, doesn't promoting those choices over social networks and the like serve as a measure of transparency, and spur a conversation, that's missing right now with the static front page? As another commenter pointed out, promotion does not restrict anyone's choice. If editors are making bad decisions about what news to cover, or how it's covered, the marketplace will punish them. Also, the Internet offers near-infinite bandwidth to different kinds of news presentations and news judgment, so why not keep the traditional form of journalism, modified for the new ways we communicate, in the mix?

Anonymous said...

What's interesting about this discussion is the underlying perception that either news must meet high journalistic standards or be mindless nonsense. Gary points out that there is room for both styles. I agree. The problem is that it is very expensive to produce "higher" news content and journalists only want to do that. You can see the indignation towards "nonsense" in the posts here. The reality is that the media has to scale the "higher" content back because there simply is not enough revenue to support it.

Gary, you don't think this statement is arrogant: "Who gives a crap what readers think about the news?"

Anonymous said...

"Who gives a crap what readers think about the news?"


And so is the oft-repeated phrase: "The average reader has the intellect of a third-grader."

If I hear that one more time, I'm going to go postal.

I've worked at newspapers large and small for almost 20 years and I have to say the little guys do a better job of giving readers -- the audience, the people we are supposed to serve -- what they are willing to pay for.

Readers do not want elitist, self-serving mastubatory pieces; they want stories about themselves, their neighbors, grassroot efforts in their community ... news that affects them.

They also want to know what's *really* going on in their city governments ... but nowadays newspaper execs are nuzzling up to mayors, police chiefs, serving on city and county boards ...

Until the watchdogs that have been neutered and locked away under the corporatization of newspapers are again allowed to do their jobs without having to worry about pissing off advertisers, we're doomed.

Anonymous said...


There's nothing wrong, in theory, with using social media to market each story on a Web site to the 50 or 100 niche readers who might be interested in it. But who has the time for that? It's a bad ROI.

The 'Most Read' box is a great marketing tool because it is democratic and grass roots.

It succeeds precisely because it cuts the arrogant editors out of the loop.

As an editor, you may think your piece on city hall corruption is the bee's knees, but fact is, nobody outside that city cares. And within that city, probably only about 5% percent care.

You can't force grown-ups to eat their vegetables.

Anonymous said...

you really need to stop masturbating and focus on what is in store for you in your miserable life.
A thankless job on a low-rated government-funded radio station gives you no standing to comment on the future of print journalism.
Get over yourself you arrogant asshole.