Hard choices behind the headlines


One of the most important challenges that newspaper editors face is being consistent in their judgment about the play of stories and photographs on the front page.

The size and position of articles, the tone of the headlines and the structure of stories reflect a newspaper's philosophy - its news judgment.

Readers will not always agree with the newspaper's choices, but if the editorial judgment is steady, most of them will feel that the decisions are carefully considered and the product of experience.

The ebb and flow of news - from natural and political disasters, wars, and important national and local policy decisions to the proverbial "slow" news days - makes the editor's job difficult.

But when front pages vary in tone from day to day, readers can become perplexed and frustrated.

A review of some recent Sun front pages provides some context.

On Oct. 26, The Sun's major presentation was a two-story package titled "Iraq's Dual Milestones," which reported a positive vote count on a new Iraqi constitution on the same day the U.S. deaths in Iraq reached 2,000.

The decision to give the events equal play was praised by a number of readers, including reader Randall F. "I must commend The Sun for its solid presentation on the Iraqi situation in today's newspaper. Both stories are important and I think the way you chose to do it was correct."

Many newspapers gave significant front-page emphasis to the 2,000-dead milestone, and some readers think that decision was a political, not a journalistic, statement.

In my view, that kind of prominent play is completely fitting, and The Sun's choice to also give the approval of the Iraqi constitution major play was smart.

When President Bush withdrew his nomination of Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court, The Sun's Oct. 27 dominant main headline said: "A New Test for Bush." The much smaller secondary display type offered specific details of the story.

The Miers story broke in the morning, so many readers already knew the basic facts. But by taking a "forward looking" approach, the newspaper was in fact commenting on the subject matter, not reporting the facts.

"That headline is not a news fact, it's a conclusion drawn by editors," said reader Tim Rutherford. "Yeah, it's a pretty easy to figure conclusion ... but a conclusion nonetheless."

In truth, almost every newspaper story worth reading requires its writer to draw conclusions. Critics who object are really asking the newspaper to default on a fundamental responsibility.

In my view, the more troubling aspect of "A New Test for Bush" is that readers never got a "Miers Steps Aside," or "Bush Drops Miers" headline first. The newspaper's efforts to advance the news cycle left readers without a headline to mark that salient point.

The Oct. 29 front page featured a large, six-column headline - "Cheney Aide Indicted" - with the secondary headline, "Libby resigns, dealing another setback to the Bush administration." For the first time since The Sun introduced its new design, the "Hot-L" index to inside stories was dropped.

The presentation said emphatically: This is very important. Pay attention.

The package, which took up two-thirds of the front page, included a lead story, an analysis piece, a sidebar on Vice President Dick Cheney's role in the CIA leak affair, a graphic detailing the charges against Cheney aide I. Lewis Libby, and a number of photographs.

A few readers, such as Michael Holden, wondered if the story was overblown. "This is certainly a news story worthy of coverage. But was this story worthy of The Sun's huge front-page headline, plus several pages of copy inside?"

But Steve Tuloss, who has previously criticized the newspaper for not clearly separating news and opinions, said he thought the package was excellent, "especially the use of the analysis article that reported how the special prosecutor's decisions could have been worse for President Bush."

Tuesday's front page with the large lead headline, "Bush Nominates Alito," was presented properly with a straightforward news headline. The companion piece, "A quiet, careful, conservative nominee," was substantive and offered details that helped illuminate Alito's personality and his legal mind-set.

The lead news story on The Sun's Oct. 24 front page, "Little Outcry Raised on Iraq," examined why some "experts" believe there has been little public protest over the Iraq war. The article provided interesting perspectives on the situation, but it was not a news story.

"The headline and the report was little more than an above-the fold anti-war editorial," wrote Moshe Gavant. He said that the story did not belong on the front page at all.

No matter how slow the news day, placing this story in the primary news position confused and frustrated a number of readers.

Editors of daily newspapers are faced with intense competition from other news outlets. The daily challenge is to make the front page reflect the biggest news of the day, every day, all the while maintaining a consistent tenor.

It's a tough job.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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