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The new role of today’s front page as a third draft of history
I usually make an effort to read the newspaper’s top headline by glancing at a corner box that I drive past on my way to work each morning as an intern at Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times. I’m rarely able to satisfy my curiosity until I get a copy in my hands — it’s just too hard to read the headline from my car. But that wasn’t the case last Friday. I could have made out the big, bold headline from across the street, and it didn’t really matter that I was able to read it, anyway. I already knew what it would say.
The Supreme Court’s ruling on the Affordable Care Act came before anyone even felt pangs of hunger for lunch on Thursday, yet newspapers shouted the news over the next day’s breakfast as if the intervening meals and news cycles hadn’t taken place.
So why then did we journalists crowd our front pages with news that dropped almost a full day before the first daily papers dropped on doorsteps? And why did our headlines seem to presume that most readers hadn’t been anywhere near Twitter, television or the radio at all during the preceding 20 to 24 hours?
A quick sampling of what I mean:
On its front page, the New York Times went with a courtly six-column, two deck headline presiding over four health care stories that draped like robes around images of the nine justices and constituted the entirety of the A1 content.
USA Today made room for some gargantuan text by shifting its customary left rail down to the bottom of the page, above a nifty little ad.
And the Chicago Tribune — a regional paper — gave the decision perhaps the most royal treatment of all, with a two-deck, all-caps main headline and two six-column dropheads. It managed to squeeze in a few stories below the Supreme Court coverage, though, as did the Los Angeles Times and the Washington Post.
That’s a lot of real estate to devote to display type and run-of-the-mill photos for a story that, by this point, deserved second-day (or even third-day) treatment.
There’s no question that health care should have been the lead story, and I’ll concede that a few stragglers may not have found out about the decision until morning. (Incidentally, 45 percent still don’t know what the Supreme Court decided, and it seems unlikely that there’s anything a newspaper’s front-page layout could have done to reach them.) But a big majority of news consumers likely already knew.
Why newspaper front pages screamed old news
Here’s my hunch: We went through the motions because it’s how we’ve always done it—and because it makes us feel important.
Newspapers have often become a part of history in the course of covering it. “Dewey Defeats Truman” notwithstanding, some front pages are historic relics belonging in museums. When we see a famous front page, we feel a sense of wonder to be reading the same words that shocked or dismayed or struck fear in the hearts of readers learning of a bombing or an assassination or a sinking of a great ship. And we as journalists feel a sense of camaraderie with those who scrambled heroically to put those papers together for the good of society, so that people would know what happened.
Today — perhaps subconsciously — we want our headlines, too, to end up in glass cases, or to line the halls of a newspaper building alongside other iconic pages from December 8, 1941 or November 23, 1963. Website screenshots and Storifys just aren’t the same.
But newspapers don’t write the first drafts of history any more.
Marcel Pacatte, a good friend and professor at Medill, worked at the Milwaukee Journal when the Gulf War began. Someone at the paper, he recalls, was tasked with measuring the point size of previous “WAR” headlines from 1916 and 1941. The goal: to ensure that the next day’s font size wouldn’t exceed what was used 50 and 75 years before. Did that exercise reflect reverence for our forebears, or did it reflect a failure to acknowledge how, even then, news habits had shifted far away from the newspaper-first mentality when it came to the biggest of stories?
While today’s physical newspapers rarely have the power to break big news, they do have the power to provide context for a story that broke the previous day. And to most newspapers’ credit, a good portion of the front-page coverage was devoted to local fallout and analysis of a very complicated decision.
Still, what struck me most on Friday was how uninterested I was in reading my favorite newspaper, The New York Times. While I can’t read as many newspapers as Michael Bloomberg and Arianna Huffington do, I like to think I read more than most, particularly among those in my age group (18-25). That said, it still takes some prodding to get me deep inside some of the sections.
The Times is unique in its ability to captivate me with nearly every story that graces its front page. The headlines are poetry, written with such finesse that they delicately trail off in a way that gently drops me into the lead paragraph below. And when I get to the jump, it’s like being a kid in an inflatable castle: How could I not?
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.
The A1 goal in newsrooms seems to change, then, on days like this. The goal isn’t to present a mix of stories that will entertain, surprise and inform — and that will lure readers inside and tell them something they didn’t know they wanted or needed to know. Instead, the goal for A1 seems to be to create a towering monument to a momentous event — something readers and editors will think twice about throwing away.
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.
But then again, maybe that’s what readers want. Or maybe it’s just what they expect. History aficionados can tuck a historic paper away as a keepsake and resume their regular reading habits the next day.
For my part, I still haven’t decided whether I’ll hold on to my copy of the newspaper that looked so significant but was left so atypically undisturbed.
Sam Kirkland (@samkirkla) is a Dow Jones News Fund copy desk intern for the Tampa Bay Times, a freelance page designer for Chicago Sun-Times Media and a master’s student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.