Friday, April 24, 2009

The front page dilemma: Why newspapers blow it when they act like they’re the first to report a major breaking news story

Based on my reading of four newspapers every morning, I’m concerned editors still think they need to present big stories as if their readers had never heard them before. This approach sends a message - and it’s not a good one. The message is this: We have nothing new to add to what you’ve already heard.

I’ve been stewing over this issue since the morning after the rescue of the American ship captain from Somali pirates, one of the most compelling stories of recent months.

The story appeared in Monday, April 13, papers. But it broke on Sunday, early enough that the good news was included in the Easter sermon at the captain’s Vermont church. Yet you wouldn’t have known that from the papers I read.

Here were the headlines:

Navy Rescues Captain, Killing 3 Pirate Captors – The New York Times

Snipers Kill Pirates, Save Captain – The Wall Street Journal

An ‘Easter surprise’ at sea – USA Today

Navy snipers’ fire frees U.S. Captain – The Denver Post, over a story from the Los Angeles Times

The stories each had essentially the same lede. This from USA Today: “Navy sharpshooters rescued an American ship captain held at gunpoint Sunday in a daring operation that left three pirates dead and ended a five-day standoff about 20 miles off the coast of Somalia.”

The problem: Everybody (OK, almost everybody) already knew what the papers were reporting. The news had rolled through the Web all day Sunday and into the night. It had dominated cable and network news shows. Yet, little in the four papers was new.

Why would a young person who hadn’t yet developed the newspaper habit see value in those headlines? They wouldn’t. The headlines reinforce the impression that newspapers are out of touch, that editors still think they operate in a vacuum where they define what’s news. So, someone might ask, why should I pay attention to newspapers.

I’m struck that we’re still wrestling with a problem that Barney Kilgore seemed to have answered almost 70 years ago when he was managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. On the same day the headlines above were published, a columnist in that paper, Gordon Crovitz, wrote about a new biography of Kilgore and how his thinking could act as a road map for today’s editors.

On the morning after Pearl Harbor, Crovitz pointed out, other newspapers “recounted the facts already known to all the day before through radio." Sound familiar? Not the Journal. It reported: “War with Japan means industrial revolution in the United States.”

We pay lip service, today, to the idea that newspapers need to explain the implications of the news, but when you read our front pages, you have to ask whether we’re living up to our claims. Kilgore’s own former paper didn’t even address the business dimensions of the rescue. The Times handled it best, with a good sidebar on the debate over arming ships’ crews, but, again, a casual reader wouldn’t had a clue that that content was in the paper, based on the front page.

At least 15 highly skilled reporters contributed to these four stories. And that doesn’t take into account the many top-notch editors who must have touched them. Yet there was little difference among them. Where’s the value in that approach? Or that use of resources?

If we don’t take risks and apply imaginative approaches to such a dramatic story, what does that tell us about our future? I’m worried that the answer isn’t one we’d like to hear.


  1. When I was in high school, I remember learning about the "role" of a newspaper.

    One was record-keeping, the other was agenda setting. I think we need to re-examine these ideas. No doubt, a newspaper should continue preforming the record-keeping function, i.e. Obama's inauguration.

    However, these types of events don't happen every day. Instead, the front page needs to move to a more agenda setting function. Instead of this reporting what happened, we should be showing what's happening next.

    You take these stories, pair them with links to the web stories (maybe even synopsis of what kind of coverage you can find online) the forums, the opinion pages, et al. You have your social networking planned for the day.

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