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The front page that never died

3 Sep

What can you tell from these front pages, just by looking? They’re very design-conscious, with that vertical masthead; socially left-leaning, judging from the columnists in the skybox; highbrow, judging by the news stories, in a broadsheet-turned-tabloid way. Oh, and none of them are real.

In March 2016, the Independent’s owners gave up producing a print newspaper altogether and went online-only. But ever since, they have produced a facsimile front page, entirely for distribution online, in the style of their last ever edition. Look closer and you notice that there is no issue number or price in the masthead. In real life, the bylines, captions and body text would be disproportionately big, like a large-print book; but that improves their legibility on screen, which is the only place they will be ever be read.

Whether Independent Print Ltd (still so named) wants to produce something that sums up the day better than any online news format yet can, or whether it just doesn’t want to give up its chance to set the agenda on What The Papers Say, it remains as wedded to its old-media traditions as it can still afford to be. It may have had to give up printing a newspaper, but it hasn’t given up having a front page.

Fit to print

20 Aug

If I was surprised to see the New York Times’s notorious splash about Trump and the El Paso shootings two weeks ago, it was as nothing to my surprise when I learned that Dean Baquet, the Times’s executive editor, sometimes doesn’t read the front page of his own newspaper (or at least has “gotten casual” about when he does so). He would have been as startled as anyone, then, when he saw the first-edition headline TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM above a story about a presidential speech, just a day after Trump had explicitly linked the issue of gun control to immigration reform in the wake of a racist mass shooting targeting Mexicans.

A tweet by the polling analyst Nate Silver drew the front page to Twitter’s attention, and a furore erupted. Baquet subsequently told the Columbia Journalism Review that, had he seen it, he would have “recognised this was a bad headline even before we got killed on social media”, and he ordered the second edition to be amended. (He honourably deflected blame away from his staff, saying “we tied the poor print hub’s arm behind its back because [the headline count] was too small”. Nonetheless, the new headline, ASSAILING HATE BUT NOT GUNS, although far from giving a complete picture, communicated much more scepticism across the same measure.)

But this is not a post about the attitude of the New York Times organisation to its print publication, or about the credulous tone of that original headline. What was also interesting about the whole uproar was that, in the era of online news, so many people seemed to feel that a print front page still mattered.

That story about Trump’s speech began its life, as so many newspaper stories now do, on the internet. According to the Wayback Machine, it first went live, with the apparently unproblematic headline TRUMP CONDEMNS WHITE SUPREMACY BUT DOESN’T PROPOSE GUN LAWS, the previous day, hours before the front page was prepared. The average number of unique visitors to the New York Times website is about 90 million a month, or 3 million per day; the daily print circulation is about 490,000. In other words, these days, the internet version of a story will vastly outstrip the newspaper one in terms of audience size. Newspapers are now also painfully late to the party, repeating much of what has been circulating online and on rolling news the previous day. In the modern news industry, the internet rules for immediacy, reach and relevance.

Why is it, then, that a print front page – surfacing belatedly in the evening and not on sale until the next day – still makes people so angry? (And it did make them angry: the New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez described it as the kind of “cowardice” that aided “white supremacy”; the Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke described it as “unbelievable”; and his rival Cory Booker told the paper that “lives depended” on it doing better.)  Of course the headline was wrong – or not so much wrong as disturbingly ingenuous, in an angry and polarised moment. But would a poorly phrased Facebook post or tweet promoting the web story, which might easily reach 490,000 people, have provoked so much outrage?

The reason, I think, is because print front pages still do something that no other forms of news distribution can do: they definitively encapsulate the news that took place on a given day. News site homepages don’t work in days – they are in a state of minute-by-minute flux as news breaks, features go live and editors change their minds about priorities. TV bulletins don’t either: there is one every few hours, each sometimes very different from the other as the news cycle changes throughout the day.

We have previously discussed how print front pages offer the opportunity for the kind of rhetorical flourish that web headlines, constrained by the need to optimise for search, do not. But print has this other role to play as well: to act, in the old-fashioned term, as “the paper of record”. There is no single definitive version of the New York Times’s web homepage for August 5, 2019: but there is a definitive Page 1. And that is what will be referred to by historians and appear in future illustrated news features – not because print is best, but because it is the only format, still, that parcels up news by the day rather than the hour. That’s why it still matters, and why politicians, readers and the Times’s own journalists still fight so hard to put the record straight.

Behold the front page

13 Jun

Andrew Marr and guests wrestle with the Sundays. Photograph: BBC

Print sales are falling, digital audiences are booming and social media appears to be deciding the outcome of world events by algorithm, but every Sunday Andrew Marr, Sophy Ridge et al still spend 15 minutes shuffling double-page spreads and holding up torn sheets of newsprint to the camera.

The TV press review, even today, remains a staple of broadcast news, and not just on Sundays. Every evening and again every morning, on at least two television channels (not to mention radio), every newspaper is pored over and filleted by a panel of guests. As news websites have grown in influence, you now sometimes see a digital journalist invited to join in, and an occasional iPad lying among the broadsheets: but not all the time, and never at the expense of any of the print front pages.

Why is that? Is it because legacy media organisations look to other legacy media organisations, and are slow to recognise new trends? Perhaps: that’s certainly what Jim Waterson, BuzzFeed UK’s political editor, believes. Is it because newspapers, untrammelled by the fairness and balance rules that Ofcom enforce on British broadcasters, can say the things, or launch the campaigns, that Sky and the BBC cannot? Yes, partly: but digital news sites are as free to be partisan as Fleet Street. The biggest reason, I think,  for the continued pre-eminence of newspapers in public life is because print front pages have an advantage no other form of media has: rhetoric.

When you are writing headlines for the internet, you have to consider how your article will be disseminated. Newspapers are found in newsagents; to a large extent, digital news stories are found on Google. Only about 30% of readers of web news come through a new organisation’s homepage: all the rest come from search engines or social-media referral. This means that digital news has to show up well on Google, which in turn means that digital news headlines must undergo what’s called “search-engine optimisation” (SEO).

What does that mean? It means that the headline must be written bearing in mind the likely terms a reader might type into Google to find it. Most online readers are not looking on your homepage for the stories they want: they are searching blind, using obvious terms, in a competitive field of news sites who all want their clicks. So, if you have an interview with Barack Obama then somewhere, somehow, the headline has to say BARACK OBAMA. If you’re covering the north London derby, somewhere the headline has to say ARSENAL V TOTTENHAM. If you don’t do that, your piece will come far down on the list of results on Google, and Googlers are not noted for their habit of carefully reading pages of results before clicking.

The disadvantage of this, of course, is that it cramps your headline-writing style. Consider the current upheavals in Westminster. It is still possible to write SEO headlines in the distinctive voice of your organisation:  “I’m sick of the Left claiming that Jeremy Corbyn won the election” (Telegraph); “Queen’s speech is DELAYED as May tears up her manifesto to strike a deal with Ian Paisley’s DUP that will ditch new grammar schools and cuts for pensioners but KEEP the target to cut immigration” (Daily Mail); “It Looks Like No One Has Won The UK General Election. WTF Happens Now?” (BuzzFeed). But compare those digital headlines with what’s been appearing on the front pages in the past few days:

These are the kind of phrases – the kind of rhetoric – that cut through. Some of them are old jokes; some of them are new ones; some of them are idioms that may come to encapsulate the crisis (just as the Telegraph’s headline, “In office, but not in power”, resurrects the most memorable of the many assaults made on John Major by his own colleagues in the 1990s). All of them communicate with brief and shattering frankness. And all of them would be SEO disasters: none of those phrases would lead you to a list of search results about the election, and, conversely, nobody typing in “Theresa May hung parliament” or similar into Google would ever find them. Nonetheless, on display at the supermarket, or on the TV, they deliver an instant punch that a five-deck web headline can’t match.

But of course news websites have front pages – or homepages – too. Not all your readers go there, but the ones that do don’t need help from Google to find you. And because you’re free from SEO constraints, there’s more scope for rhetoric: you could almost treat them as though they were newsprint.

Which is exactly, it seems, what BuzzFeed has started doing:

These headlines are short, zingy, SEO-free and – unlike a search on a blank Google homepage – surrounded by photos and furniture that reinforce their message. Although digital, they’re an example of the old journalism, rather than the new. And they’re just the kind of thing that would look good on an iPad at the paper review.