Remaking the Front Page  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2006

Remaking the Front Page   

As they struggle to stem the circulation decline, newspapers are taking new approaches to what they put on page one.

By Donna Shaw
Donna Shaw (shaw@tcnj.edu) is an AJR contributing writer.     


At the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, a "front-page impact team" brainstorms to find creative ways to attract readers. At the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, page one has a weekday feature called "Have you heard?" a brief summary of three to five stories that editors think people will talk about around the watercooler. At the Washington Post and New York Times, the front page used to have seven stories, but now has six or sometimes even five, giving way to more refers and bigger key boxes.

As newspaper circulation continues to drop, editors are desperately searching for ways to win back readers, or at least hang onto the ones they still have. It's a daunting most analysts predict losing proposition, as the audience for printed news shrinks in most large markets. But since page one is the first thing that readers see, it's getting everything from simple cosmetic changes in some cities to expensive, full-fledged makeovers in others.

In a growing number of newsrooms, this has meant a dramatic shift in the way editors think about their roles. While many still hold to the "editors are the ultimate arbiters" tradition, others are literally flinging open their doors to readers, asking them to help decide what should lead the paper. One daily, the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, invites the public to its news meetings and posts summaries of them online (see "Too Transparent?" April/May). Another, the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, is conducting a "Reader's Choice" experiment that allows readers to vote online for which stories should be catapulted to page one. Even the executive editor of the New York Times acknowledges that his team sometimes succumbs to "guilty pleasures" on A1. Asked in a recent online chat why the Times ran a piece on the Page Six scandal at the New York Post, Bill Keller replied that it "merited the front page partly as a matter of reader interest."

Will any of this work?

"That's the $64,000 question," says Gary Meo, senior vice president of print and Internet services for Scarborough Research, a New York-based firm that measures media audiences and consumer behavior. Newspapers, Meo says, "are trying a million things, but in terms of growing readership in the core paper, we just don't see it." At best, he says, such efforts "are slowing the decline" of newspapers.

Has any newspaper come up with a winning formula for luring readers who have strayed back to page one? "I'm not aware of any," says industry analyst John Morton, an AJR columnist.

Consider: In an anonymous survey of 21 of my journalism students at the College of New Jersey (18 journalism majors, three minors), only one said newspapers were a primary news source. And that one student doesn't buy newspapers. The student's parents do. This is in a class in which six students are editors at the college newspaper a college where the average SAT score of accepted freshmen for 2005-06 was 1310 (the national average was 1028). These are bright, informed students but few read newspapers. One wrote under the survey's "Comments" section: "Even if I do see a story I'm interested in on the front page, I still probably won't buy it. I'll read it in the store." Wrote another: "I typically don't end up reading front-page stories, unless something really stands out, or if it's about something that would affect me or others in my age group."

As the Internet gains popularity, analysts suggest it's unlikely that many of those students will eventually take up the newspaper habit. Indeed, with PDAs and cell phones offering news, it seems more reasonable to conclude that the trend away from newspapers will continue. A Scarborough report released in April refers to this as the gathering momentum of the "integrated newspaper audience" a new metric that measures the combined audience of a newspaper's print and Web readers.

Newspapers can't afford to agree with the skeptics; they have to fight the good fight. In interviews with editors across the country, several said they have not seen circulation rise as a result of their page-one initiatives. But some think the new approaches can help stop the bleeding.

Karen Magnuson, editor and vice president for news at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in New York, says her newspaper is using a variety of techniques to make page one more inviting. For one thing, the Gannett paper spends a lot on research. "We do a scientific study every couple of years to ask [readers] about their readership habits, topics they're most interested in, and their satisfaction with the way we cover those topics," she says. "We look at that very closely..and we follow up on the scientific research by talking to readers and experimenting with topics that will be relevant to their daily lives."

The Rochester area is home to thousands of high-tech and university workers, including those at Kodak, the Rochester Institute of Technology, the University of Rochester and a number of other colleges. Conventional wisdom would assume that these tech-savvy workers prefer news on the Web, but Magnuson is determined to battle to keep her readers. In addition to taking surveys, Magnuson says the paper has spent significant amounts of time and money to redesign and rethink page one as well as other aspects of the print and online editions.

The front page now showcases more content on the left-hand rail, and editors are constantly looking for "more invasive ways to promote what's inside the paper" with overlines and promos, Magnuson says. Sunday's front page in particular has seen a dramatic redesign. In March, for a story during Sunshine Week, reporters went to local school districts and asked for public documents to see if officials would hand them over. The page-one story was illustrated with a large flashlight shining on a document that contained the story; as the text continued, the flashlight theme was used to highlight key points, such as how to file a Freedom of Information Act request and what to do when confronted with official resistance. Until recent years, "we wouldn't have thought of using an illustration to anchor on page one," Magnuson says. "We're less traditional than we used to be," she adds. "We're taking more risks... We're being more creative in how we package our information."

According to a report last year by the Newspaper Association of America, the Democrat and Chronicle was the top newspaper in the country in reaching the highest percentage of its home market with a combination of print newspaper and Web site. The Rochester paper's reach, as measured by the average weekly audience within its home market, was 80.3 percent, and was 83.9 percent for the combined print and Internet products, according to NAA's analysis. (An average weekly audience is defined as people who read a newspaper at least once a week, according to Scarborough, which collects the readership data via telephone surveys. The online data comes from Nielsen//NetRatings, and the combined figure includes people who have visited the paper's Web site in the past 30 days.)

That lofty ranking might suggest that Magnuson's team has found the magic bullet, except for one small detail: The paper's circulation is shrinking. In the year ending March 31, the paper's paid circulation dipped from 223,718 to 219,660 on Sunday and from 165,221 to 160,290 during the week. "So I can't say we're reversing the trend," she says.

Still, she sees the paper's efforts to make itself more reader-friendly as a good thing, in large part because she thinks it gives her staff a better feel for what readers want. Another way the Democrat and Chronicle has measured this is through its "front-page impact team," a group that is chaired by editors but also includes executives from circulation and marketing. They meet at least once a month to discuss ways to promote their news and analyze trends in single-copy sales.

Much of what they've found might not be surprising. For example, more papers are sold when they contain breaking news, exclusive stories or "some type of human drama" on the front page, Magnuson says. And in an analysis of several months' worth of papers, the impact team found that if all three elements were above the fold on page one, "it would be a big seller," she says.

In mid-March, when President Bush visited Rochester, the Democrat and Chronicle published a special report and sold at least 1,300 extra copies. Some of that likely was because readers wanted a keepsake of his visit, but there was an added element that Magnuson thinks drew in a substantial number of readers: the story of how Bush met with Jason McElwain, 17, an autistic high-school student who scored 20 points in the last four minutes of his first varsity basketball game.

"That is a story to beat all stories," Magnuson says, "and we've been covering it like a blanket."

But aren't these stories that the paper would cover anyway? "Sure we would," she replies. "But being aware of what our readers are interested in and what seems to sell helps us better package those kinds of stories." And package they do: in the days just before and after the president's arrival, Magnuson's reporters churned out some 35 stories on related issues, including Bush's visit with the families of local troops killed overseas; senior citizens' reactions to his Medicare drug plan; hot local issues like literacy, labor unions and military veterans; Bush fans versus protesters; and of course, Jason McElwain.

At their daily news meetings, the editors also take note of what local story is getting the most Internet traffic (see "By the Numbers"). "Sometimes we might put that story on the front page when we normally would not have, if we can add more details or analysis," Magnuson says.

Ultimately, most of the editors interviewed for this story agree, it's local news on the front page that sells papers. "I think the key is to go as local as possible," Magnuson says. "People can't get enough."

Of the 10 top newspapers on the NAA list of combined print/Web reach, Gannett owns three, more than any other company. So while there might not be a secret formula for front-page success, are Gannett papers closer to finding it, with all of them using techniques similar to Rochester's? Not so much.

At Gannett's Des Moines Register, No. 3 on the list, editors don't pay as much attention to reader surveys or what's hot on the paper's Web site, preferring the time-honored tradition of having editors decide what belongs on page one, according to Managing Editor Randy Brubaker. He characterizes his paper as resembling so many others, "struggling to stay even" in terms of circulation. The paper's weekday circulation, now 151,336, dipped slightly in the past year.

"Our number-one focus is, what do we put on the front page that will make us successful in engaging readers on any given day?" Brubaker says. "We are not using any one formula. We talk about the most popular stories online, but I don't think that really helps determine our A1 mix for the next day, because it seems to me our online audience is more crime- and sports-oriented."

Like the other editors interviewed, Brubaker says he doesn't necessarily avoid front-page leads with the word "yesterday" in them. "Our challenge is that if we are going to write about yesterday, we write about how, about why, about something significant our readers didn't already know. Clearly we do focus on what's ahead... But yesterday is not a four-letter word."

At the No. 2 newspaper on the NAA list, Cox's Austin American-Statesman, Managing Editor Fred Zipp says news executives don't rely much on reader surveys or similar techniques. "We're just blessed with really good newspaper readers," he says. "Austin also has a powerful sense of self and sense of place, and people in Austin like to read about themselves and this area."

Like Rochester, Austin is a high-tech community. It is home to computer maker Dell and the University of Texas at Austin. The Austin/Round Rock area has the second-most-educated workforce in the country, with more than 35 percent of its population over the age of 25 having at least a bachelor's degree, according to the Round Rock Chamber of Commerce. The newspaper reaches 74.8 percent of its home market, 82.7 percent when its Web audience is included, according to the NAA study. Zipp points out that readership may also be higher because Austin is the state capital; he theorizes that people who like politics are more likely to read newspapers. (Indeed, four of the 10 papers on the NAA list are in capital cities.) The Statesman's circulation is 183,952, up almost 1,000 copies from a year ago.

The paper likes to emphasize local news on its front page, Zipp says, "because we figure that's the one area where we continue to be unassailable."

While the Statesman conducts reader surveys, they are "not of the specificity that would allow us to pick page-one stories," he says. "We don't make those play decisions based on market research."

The editors pay attention to stories that unexpectedly are top performers on their Web site, but that isn't necessarily factored into their decisions for the next day's front page. The stories with the most traffic generally involve sports, sex, crime and politics, Zipp says.

And while the Statesman doesn't avoid "yesterday" leads, "we try to put sort of a forward spin or analytical edge" on them, he says. "But some stories are just so significant, so powerful in themselves, there's no need to do that."

Meo, the Scarborough researcher, says that just because those newspapers are on a top-10 list doesn't necessary mean any of their page-one innovations are helping retain, much less increase, circulation. For one thing, he points out, "circulation is different than readership" readership denotes the number of people reading a newspaper while circulation refers to the number of copies sold. And for another, the older the population, the more likely it is to cling to newspapers. With the exception of Austin, most of the other cities on the list have populations that skew somewhat old, Meo says. That's why Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, has the highest newspaper penetration in the country but the lowest numbers for Internet use: The median age there is 38.8, above the U.S. median of 35.3 years, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

In general, Meo says, more youthful and warmer markets (with the exception of retirement havens like Florida) have fewer newspaper readers, while older, colder markets like those in the Northeast have more newspaper readers. Still, he doesn't completely dismiss the innovations at Rochester and elsewhere.

"What Rochester is doing could be helping them keep their readers," he says. "But there's no data to support that at this point."

Morton, the industry analyst, wonders about the usefulness of reader surveys. "The question that always comes up is, what if you're talking to the wrong 25 people or phoning the wrong 100 people?" he says. "I know the statisticians tell you these are valid, but still, I wonder."

While editors wait for more solid answers, they continue to embrace new ideas for page one. One of the most unusual experiments is being conducted at the Wisconsin State Journal. Since January, editors have been running an online box on weekdays listing four or five stories that might be worthy of page one. Online readers can vote for their favorites between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. Sometimes more than one of the stories is used on the next day's front page, but the paper tries to use at least the top vote-getter, according to Ellen Foley, editor of the Madison paper.

Foley says readers insist they like the initiative, but not many of them are playing. On some days, all of the stories combined get only a couple dozen votes. "It does surprise me that more people aren't using it," she says.

There have been occasions when people voted multiple times, a practice the newspaper foiled with a new cookie system after discovering that one person had voted 270 times for a political story. That modification plus the fact that editors now avoid political stories in the Reader's Choice box helped stop the serial voters. It also reduced the number of votes. Foley thinks another problem is that people don't like computer cookies. "But what we clearly are finding is that people are voting on stories that they think are important, not necessarily the stories they are entertained by," she says.

One day, for example, she was sure that the "Can you find love via instant messaging?" story would get the most votes. But it got creamed by "FEMA wasted millions in disaster aid."

"I thought, 'Wow, wow!'" Foley says with a laugh.

The editors of the Lee Enterprises-owned paper go with the readers' picks barring unusual circumstances. Obviously, bigger news may erupt later in the day, after the story topics are posted online. In addition, readers sometimes vote for stories that editors find, well, boring. So the story may still go on page one, but maybe with low-key play, or maybe it just gets a refer. When the winner isn't on page one, says Foley, the newspaper explains why in a front-page box.

It's too soon to gauge the impact of the experiment on the paper's circulation, which was 146,439 on Sunday and 90,221 on weekdays as of last September. (The publisher's statement with updated figures hadn't been filed when the Audit Bureau of Circulations released its most recent statistics in May.)

Because turnout has been low, Foley and her editors are rethinking the process. They are extending the voting hours and may change the way they describe Reader's Choice to make it closer to, "You get to control the news," Foley says. The paper also is learning that there's a trick to writing the story descriptions. For example, one recent story was described as involving "changes at Miller Park," home of baseball's Milwaukee Brewers. That may have turned off non-sports fans, but the story was really about the fact that the ballpark was becoming more family-friendly, with new shopping and food vendors and picnicking opportunities. "We should have written something like, 'Miller Park targets family fun' or something like that," Foley says.

"So I'm not ready to give up on it," she says. "Even if there aren't 5,000 people voting, it's just a tremendous tool inside the newsroom, to have conversations about the daily changes in our lives."

Foley says the only complaints about the initiative have come from journalists who question giving so much influence to readers. "They say, 'You are abandoning your responsibility an as editor,' and I say to them, 'God, I thought we had learned our lesson the readers are smart.'"

Another newspaper that has made substantial changes to page one is Minneapolis' Star Tribune, which in March 2005 teamed with the Readership Institute at Northwestern University to test different front and inside pages with young adults. "By a wide margin," the Readership Institute concluded, readers preferred what the study called the "experience paper" one that gave readers "something to talk about," delivered "surprise and humor" and made "a strong visual impact" as compared with two other designs, labeled "original" and "improved."

The front page of the "experience paper" was preferred in almost every dimension measured, including "Overall preference," "Best story selection," "Gets you to read more," "Looks out for your interests" and "Easier to get information," according to Readership Institute data.

The page features wider columns and easier-to-read typefaces; summaries on top of stories when they take more than a minute to read; yellow boxes offering "fast facts and key points"; and "Have you heard?" a box that runs on weekdays and summarizes stories identified as among the most compelling of the day. Readers who want more can look inside the paper.

Anders Gyllenhaal, editor of the McClatchy-owned daily, says the paper is still evaluating the response to the new approach. "There is a lot to react to, and our changes have been fairly dramatic," he says. "On the one hand, we're seeing plenty of evidence that we're reaching some of the readers that we haven't been getting... But I don't put a lot of stock in it yet."

As of March 31, the paper's circulation was 362,964 during the week and 606,698 on Sunday. Both figures represent significant drops from the year before. The experience paper made its debut in October 2005, roughly halfway through the one-year period.

"The newspaper's front page for decades has been the place where the most important and serious news goes," Gyllenhaal says, "and that generally has meant news from a series of institutions and news that hits you over the head... We've ignored the fact that there are many, many sources of news."

Gyllenhaal says his team now approaches page one as "a book cover for the whole paper," one that still carries a lot of news but also tries "to draw in the reader in new ways." So a recent "Have you heard" box, for example, teased inside stories on rising student debt; a drop in the unemployment rate; the small amount of time Americans now spend on making dinner; and a judge's ruling that Dan Brown didn't steal the idea for his mega-bestseller, "The DaVinci Code."

"It's what you would talk about with your friends, a 'Did you hear this?'" Gyllenhaal says.

The wider columns and clearer fonts, he says, are part of "turning down the volume on the front page, because 80 percent of our readers are home delivery, and people don't want to be screamed at, they want to be talked to..in a calm and trustworthy tone."

Even national powers like the New York Times and the Washington Post are rethinking their front pages, although not as dramatically.

At the Post No. 8 on the NAA list Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr. says the paper runs fewer stories on page one six or even five, instead of its former standard of seven. The front-page key box is longer, and the paper uses larger photos but fewer packages because they take up so much space. Instead, there will generally be one story per subject on the front, with keys to related pieces inside (see "a href="Article.asp?id=3853">"Reversing the Slide," April/May 2005). Sometimes, that means putting important hard-news stories inside the paper, with analyses, enterprise stories or exclusives out front part of what Downie calls "looking for ways to tell stories that are 24 hours old in a new way." So on March 30, the day Jill Carroll was freed by her captors in Iraq, a Post reporter in Baghdad got access to the Christian Science Monitor writer, interviewing her for a story that ran on page one the next day. "We had a different kind of story in which she had a lot to say about her captivity," Downie says. "And we had the traditional news story inside."

He says the paper probably has "a wider variety of stories now on the front page." Those include more business stories, especially about business crime and consumer trends, and more about sports, the area's immigrant communities and youth culture. Still, that doesn't mean the Post avoids "yesterday" leads. "We still value yesterday, too," he says. "There's a connection that people in this town have to that news... It's not a magazine, it's still a newspaper."

The paper's weekday circulation is 724,242, down nearly 30,000 from a year ago.

Like the Post, the New York Times has reduced its front-page story count. Richard Berke, assistant managing editor for news, says that makes the page more reader-friendly. The refer box, meanwhile, "gives people a sense of the assortment of stories inside the paper." Those are probably the biggest cosmetic changes on page one, he says, "but we also struggle every day to deal with the Web, and how our stories are already on the Web site." Times editors are wary of taking the list of most-e-mailed stories too seriously, he says, because they aren't sure who is sending them.

While there's no concerted effort to reduce the "yesterday" leads, the Internet has accelerated the Times' efforts to make page one fresher, Berke says. "We haven't settled on the perfect formula yet because we don't know what it is," he says. "We want to be current and fresh and distinctive but don't want to overreact when we still sell over a million copies of the newspaper every day."

Executive Editor Keller addressed the issues in an online chat in April. The Times, he said, thinks that "stories about how we live often outweigh stories about what happened yesterday. We think it's okay to include in our front-page portfolio something that is fun, human, or just wonderfully written. It's part science, part art, with a little serendipity."

He continued: "The notion of a Page 1 story, in fact, has evolved over the years, partly in response to the influence of other media. When a news event has been on the Internet and TV and news radio all day long, do we want to put that news on our front page the next morning? Maybe we do, if we feel our reporting and telling of it goes deeper than what has been available elsewhere. But if the factual outline the raw information is widely available, sometimes we choose to offer something else that plays to our journalistic advantages: a smart analysis of the events, a vivid piece of color from the scene, a profile of one of the central figures, or a gripping photograph that captures the impact of an event, instead of a just-the-facts news story."

Although the Times newsroom hasn't done a reader survey in years, there's a feeling that it should conduct one soon, Berke says. But he says the Times editors, like those at many other newspapers, will not relinquish their decision-making responsibilities. "We think we know what good journalism is, and I don't think we'd hand over those decisions to our readers," he says.

The Times' weekday circulation is 1,142,464, up nearly 6,000 from a year ago. Its Sunday circulation went up as well.

Like other editors interviewed, Berke is well aware that more changes are coming for the newspaper business. At the Times, he says, "We're unsettled..but not desperate."

He adds, "We're not panicked that people don't want our journalism. We're comfortable about how we do journalism. It's just that we have to adjust how we do our job for the new world."

Donna Shaw (shaw@tcnj.edu), a former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter, teaches journalism at the College of New Jersey outside Trenton. She wrote about use of the controversial term "person of interest" in AJR's February/March issue.

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