Lately I’ve been missing my Wall Street Journal (the subscription that the paper paid for ran out, and they wanted $299 to renew), particularly the “What’s News” feature on the front page, which provided a nice briefing each day of the news that mattered. If all I had time to do was read that, I at least was aware of everything important that had happened nationally and internationally.
It took me a while to get used to that. For years, I had thought in standard newspaper-front-page language to get my cues on what was big. There is nothing, of course, standard about the WSJ; they do things their own way. The New York Times is typical of the traditional, conventional approach, which as a newspaperman (who was once a front-page editor, many years ago) I appreciate. It’s probably meaningful to you as well, only subconsciously rather than overtly.
It works like this, in part: The most important thing that happens in the world appears in a vertical element on the far right-hand side of the page, usually, but not always, touching the top of the page. In a newspaper with a truly conservative approach such as the NYT (I’m using “conservative” in the true meaning of the word, not in the popular political sense, folks), most days that lede story (that’s the newspaper spelling for “lead,” by the way) will only have a one-column headline. That’s because most days, there is no earth-shattering news. History moves gradually, for the most part.
When the lede hed (newspaperese for headline) gets bigger than two columns, watch out. It could be good news, but it could be really bad. In any case, it’s really something.
A lede-worthy story is several things:
- It’s important.
- It’s probably interesting, but it doesn’t have to be. Quite often, the most important developments are dull, and your attention naturally drifts to other things on the page. Those highly interesting other things may be more prominently displayed on the page — toward the center top, or left-hand side — and they may have art with them (newspaperese for photos, graphics or anything that’s not plain text).
- It happened. It doesn’t advance something that’s going to happen (although there could be rare exceptions, such as a story that builds up to something like a presidential inauguration — but even then, something has to have happened leading toward that). It’s not a trend story — it doesn’t take a step back from the news; it is the news. It’s not analysis.
This may seem all terribly pedantic, especially as it has to do with a dying industry. It may seem like I’m providing a connossieur’s view of horses and buggies. But a lot of you out there are confirmed newspaper readers, and you probably understand these things I’m explaining instinctively. I’m talking here about you true aficionados; the people who not only take The State 7 days, but the NYT or WSJ as well. You are the people who are the most avid editorial page readers, because you are the most committed readers of the paper overall.)
Editors informed by that tradition certainly assumed you did. Buzz Merritt did. Buzz was the executive editor at The Wichita Eagle-Beacon (now known once again merely as The Wichita Eagle) when I was its front-page editor in the mid-80s. Buzz had come up in the business at The Charlotte Observer, which was always of the traditionalist school (I don’t know if it is now or not, because I never see it). He’s the one who drilled those three qualities of a lede, and the permissible ways to present it on the page, into my head.
And Buzz explained that a lede should communicate one thing very clearly to the reader, even the casual reader, whether consciously or not: Is my world safe? Usually, the answer will be yes, at least relatively so, and your eyes will merely brush over that reassuring fact as you move on to dig into news that interests you more. For that reason the lede should often be unobtrusive, occupying the minimal space on that right-hand edge. But when you really need to sit up and take notice (the collapse of credit markets, the USSR moving missiles into Cuba) it needs to be big enough to reach out and grab you.
Most of these subtleties, of course, are lost on you if you read your newspaper online. As useful as the Web versions can be (and the NYT and WSJ are very good at adding value via the Web) that medium just hasn’t developed the same visual and organizational language to convey the same messages about what’s important today. And that’s one reason why, consciously or unconsciously, many of you still cling to your print editions.
Anyway, as an Old School newspaperman, with a traditionalist’s sense of what matters — and one who thinks some of you might be of a similar orientation — let me offer a briefing glimpse at the news that actually mattered this morning. No Britney Spears. No “Idol.” No sports (except, of course, during the World Series or the Final Four, and then just as leavening in what we call “the mix”). Just news that matters.
U.S. to Regulate Tobacco — A good lede candidate. It happened. It’s historically important, with extremely wide-ranging implications across the country. And it’s also interesting. (From an SC perspective, it’s another step forward on the national front while we can’t even raise our lowest-in-the-nation tax.)
Iran Votes Today — This couldn’t be the lede, because it hadn’t happened yet. But there’s nothing bigger on the horizon today, and demands prominent front-page play. Barring something huge and unexpected overshadowing it, a likely lede candidate for tomorrow (if we know anything about results).
Al Qaeda shifting Out of Pakistan — Not a lede either, but a very important trend story. Seems to have been exclusive to the NYT, although I could be wrong. (Of course, if you’re a paper that subscribes to the NYT news service, you would have had access to this in-cycle.)
TV Finally Goes Digital — This story, after the years of build-up, is pretty ho-hum. But it is happening today. And even though most folks won’t notice the difference, this is a significant milestone that affects, even if unobtrusively in most cases, technology that all of us have in our homes, and that too many of us spend too much time staring at. A small, take-note-of headline on the page.
BEA Issues Gloomier Forecast — A good lede candidate for a South Carolina paper (and indeed, that’s how it was played in The State). You might want to run, as a sidebar, this more upbeat indicator: Lowcountry Home Sales Up. There are promising signs, and you need to keep readers apprised of them, while not sugarcoating the situation.
USC Tuition Holds to Inflation — Important consumer news, to be sure. But this also contains currents of several things of strategic importance to the state, addressing as it does economic development, the federal stimulus, the state budget cuts, and accessibility to a college education in a state in which too few adults have one.
I’ll stop there, because that’s enough for a respectable front page with most newspapers.
Anyway, if y’all like this, maybe I’ll do it more often. Like daily.