Making the Front Page: How All the News Fits in Print

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Making the Front Page: How All the News Fits in Print

Washington editors, who once weren’t even allowed to speak, now beam in on a giant TV screen, as do editors based overseas. In these meetings, it is routine to hear from sections that rarely have front-page candidates. Nowadays they are looking for “home page” time — an ever-evolving 24-hour formula that allows far more stories to be showcased — and promoted in newsletters and on our social media accounts.

For the most part, the front-page decisions are hashed out throughout the day, never far out of alignment with those being made for the web, though there is a separate front-page meeting at 3 p.m. There the final calls on stories are made (until something new happens and the page has to be remade). But much of the focus of that meeting is on looking at the available photos and designing the page. The design will dictate the size of headlines, leaving editors little room to maneuver — unlike the more flexible, and fluid, procedure for the web. Often the headline on the print story deemed the most important of the day is in a narrow column, allowing only six or seven words — not even half a tweet. (This got us into trouble recently, when the need for a very short front-page print headline resulted in one that lacked sufficient context.)

Though in some ways the front-page decisions have become secondary in today’s 24-hour news cycle, many reporters and editors still measure their success by how many of their stories land there.

It is still a tradition in the newsroom to commemorate a reporter’s first front-page story with a metal plate of the page used by our local plant. (So far, no one seems satisfied with a screen grab.)

The types of stories that appear on the front page have also changed mightily over the years. In the 1980s, government announcements, ceremonial meetings between world leaders and stories based on newly released reports often dominated the page, as did pictures of mayors and businessmen standing behind lecterns.

Since then, the definition of important news has pushed into new areas. Analysis, lifestyle and original reporting began to edge out yearly stories about the Macy’s parade and particularly hot or particularly cold days in New York. (Yes, as a young reporter I wrote countless parade and weather stories.)

The changes were often distressing to the old guard. When I was named National editor in 2005, a retired managing editor who had once taken an interest in my career took me out to lunch to celebrate. But he could not stop talking about what he saw happening at the paper.