Back when I was a rookie editor in ABC’s Manhattan newsroom we used to place bets - actual cash wagers - on how the New York Times would design the next day’s front page.
Rather than wait until morning for results we gathered around a radio to savor the 9 p.m. broadcast on WQXR, which began: “Front Page! Tomorrow’s New York Times! What will it look like?” A fellow named Bill Blair dutifully described every inch of page one, reading each headline and explaining how it was positioned.
Though the radio program is long gone, some news executives still play the game using digital images. But here’s a news flash: Among them are the Times’s top editors. Many of the people who used to spend hours planning the page now check an email or tweet at 9 p.m. to see what it looks like. For them, the print edition has taken a backseat to the company’s various digital products.
This resulted in quite a fuss the other day when the Times’s print headline as of 9 p.m. read, “TRUMP URGES UNITY VS. RACISM.” A tweet of the page brought an angry response from those who felt the wording, while accurate, failed to contextualize the president’s remarks in the wake of shootings in Texas and Ohio. The headline was changed in subsequent editions to, “ASSAILING HATE BUT NOT GUNS.”
My take on all this is twofold. First, the Times’s front page, much like its tabloid cousins in New York, The Daily News and The Post, has impact as an information snapshot that extends beyond actual print circulation. Second, and far more important, journalists are on dangerous ground when they shift too heavily from reporting the news to analyzing and interpreting it outside of carefully labeled “opinion” columns.
The Wall Street Journal’s page-one headline that day, for example, was bland but straightforward: “Trump Speaks Out as Death Toll In Two Shootings Climbs...”
Few stories frustrate journalists - and those who second-guess them - as much as mass murders across this nation. They are covered in print and on television in a predictable pattern: anxious eyewitnesses and grieving relatives speaking to shirtsleeved reporters, along with streams of politicians who appear genuinely concerned but also aware of a prime-time opportunity to be seen and heard.
Nothing changes, prompting some to blame the messenger. If only, they argue, journalists went beyond the facts and called for action to restrict guns and curb hate crimes. A sad take along those lines comes from a former editor at Denver’s defunct Rocky Mountain News, who guided award-winning coverage of the 1999 school massacre at Columbine.
Under the headline, “I’ve seen the limits of journalism,” John Temple writes in The Atlantic that the ritual of how mass murders are covered hasn’t changed much in two decades. “I am forced to ask why journalists are doing this work in this way,” he concludes, “and whether in the end it’s worth it.”
Keeping the public informed is, indeed, worth it. People in Colorado aren’t disadvantaged because coverage follows predictable patterns so much as they are that The Rocky’s closure made Denver a one-paper town.
The more politically divided the nation becomes, the greater the thirst for news coverage that reinforces thinking rather than inspires it. At the same time, the shift from print to digital platforms makes opining easier, opening the door for the oxymoronic endeavor known as advocacy journalism.
If the Times erred in judgment it was probably by placing the President’s remarks too high on the page. There was nothing wrong with what the original headline said, only with the thinking of critics whose 9 o’clock bet would have been for something that more matched their opinion.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker.