Today’s news that matters

Lately I’ve been missing my Wall Street Journal (the subscription that the paper paid for ran out, and they wanted $299 to renew), particularly the “What’s News” feature on the front page, which provided a nice briefing each day of the news that mattered. If all I had time to do was read that, I at least was aware of everything important that had happened nationally and internationally.

It took me a while to get used to that. For years, I had thought in standard newspaper-front-page language to get my cues on what was big. There is nothing, of course, standard about the WSJ; they do things their own way. The New York Times is typical of the traditional, conventional approach, which as a newspaperman (who was once a front-page editor, many years ago) I appreciate. It’s probably meaningful to you as well, only subconsciously rather than overtly.

It works like this, in part: The most important thing that happens in the world appears in a vertical element on the far right-hand side of the page, usually, but not always, touching the top of the page. In a newspaper with a truly conservative approach such as the NYT (I’m using “conservative” in the true meaning of the word, not in the popular political sense, folks), most days that lede story (that’s the newspaper spelling for “lead,” by the way) will only have a one-column headline. That’s because most days, there is no earth-shattering news. History moves gradually, for the most part.

When the lede hed (newspaperese for headline) gets bigger than two columns, watch out. It could be good news, but it could be really bad. In any case, it’s really something.

A lede-worthy story is several things:

  1. It’s important.
  2. It’s probably interesting, but it doesn’t have to be. Quite often, the most important developments are dull, and your attention naturally drifts to other things on the page. Those highly interesting other things may be more prominently displayed on the page — toward the center top, or left-hand side — and they may have art with them (newspaperese for photos, graphics or anything that’s not plain text).
  3. It happened. It doesn’t advance something that’s going to happen (although there could be rare exceptions, such as a story that builds up to something like a presidential inauguration — but even then, something has to have happened leading toward that). It’s not a trend story — it doesn’t take a step back from the news; it is the news. It’s not analysis.

This may seem all terribly pedantic, especially as it has to do with a dying industry. It may seem like I’m providing a connossieur’s view of horses and buggies. But a lot of you out there are confirmed newspaper readers, and you probably understand these things I’m explaining instinctively. I’m talking here about you true aficionados; the people who not only take The State 7 days, but the NYT or WSJ as well. You are the people who are the most avid editorial page readers, because you are the most committed readers of the paper overall.)

Editors informed by that tradition certainly assumed you did. Buzz Merritt did. Buzz was the executive editor at The Wichita Eagle-Beacon (now known once again merely as The Wichita Eagle) when I was its front-page editor in the mid-80s. Buzz had come up in the business at The Charlotte Observer, which was always of the traditionalist school (I don’t know if it is now or not, because I never see it). He’s the one who drilled those three qualities of a lede, and the permissible ways to present it on the page, into my head.

And Buzz explained that a lede should communicate one thing very clearly to the reader, even the casual reader, whether consciously or not: Is my world safe? Usually, the answer will be yes, at least relatively so, and your eyes will merely brush over that reassuring fact as you move on to dig into news that interests you more. For that reason the lede should often be unobtrusive, occupying the minimal space on that right-hand edge. But when you really need to sit up and take notice (the collapse of credit markets, the USSR moving missiles into Cuba) it needs to be big enough to reach out and grab you.

Most of these subtleties, of course, are lost on you if you read your newspaper online. As useful as the Web versions can be (and the NYT and WSJ are very good at adding value via the Web) that medium just hasn’t developed the same visual and organizational language to convey the same messages about what’s important today. And that’s one reason why, consciously or unconsciously, many of you still cling to your print editions.

Anyway, as an Old School newspaperman, with a traditionalist’s sense of what matters — and one who thinks some of you might be of a similar orientation — let me offer a briefing glimpse at the news that actually mattered this morning. No Britney Spears. No “Idol.” No sports (except, of course, during the World Series or the Final Four, and then just as leavening in what we call “the mix”). Just news that matters.

Here goes:


U.S. to Regulate Tobacco — A good lede candidate. It happened. It’s historically important, with extremely wide-ranging implications across the country. And it’s also interesting. (From an SC perspective, it’s another step forward on the national front while we can’t even raise our lowest-in-the-nation tax.)

Iran Votes Today — This couldn’t be the lede, because it hadn’t happened yet. But there’s nothing bigger on the horizon today, and demands prominent front-page play. Barring something huge and unexpected overshadowing it, a likely lede candidate for tomorrow (if we know anything about results).

Al Qaeda shifting Out of Pakistan — Not a lede either, but a very important trend story. Seems to have been exclusive to the NYT, although I could be wrong. (Of course, if you’re a paper that subscribes to the NYT news service, you would have had access to this in-cycle.)

TV Finally Goes Digital — This story, after the years of build-up, is pretty ho-hum. But it is happening today. And even though most folks won’t notice the difference, this is a significant milestone that affects, even if unobtrusively in most cases, technology that all of us have in our homes, and that too many of us spend too much time staring at. A small, take-note-of headline on the page.


BEA Issues Gloomier Forecast — A good lede candidate for a South Carolina paper (and indeed, that’s how it was played in The State). You might want to run, as a sidebar, this more upbeat indicator: Lowcountry Home Sales Up. There are promising signs, and you need to keep readers apprised of them, while not sugarcoating the situation.

USC Tuition Holds to Inflation — Important consumer news, to be sure. But this also contains currents of several things of strategic importance to the state, addressing as it does economic development, the federal stimulus, the state budget cuts, and accessibility to a college education in a state in which too few adults have one.

I’ll stop there, because that’s enough for a respectable front page with most newspapers.

Anyway, if y’all like this, maybe I’ll do it more often. Like daily.

24 thoughts on “Today’s news that matters

  1. Karen McLeod

    Please feel free to do so. Since “The State” did all its firing and reducing, it’s a challenge to find any actual news in there (it can be done, but it’s usually a hunt). I missed the bit about Al-Quaeda moving out of Pakistan. What’s happening there? The Iran vote will, of course, make a whole lot of difference in what happens next. It’s amazing it took this long for congress to get around to getting some control over a business that costs us all so much in tax dollars and health insurance (it does tell you something about the effectiveness and efficiency of our congress).

  2. jfx

    Brad wrote:

    “Most of these subtleties, of course, are lost on you if you read your newspaper online. As useful as the Web versions can be (and the NYT and WSJ are very good at adding value via the Web) that medium just hasn’t developed the same visual and organizational language to convey the same messages about what’s important today.”

    I think if you are talking only about individual sites, like NYT, you are correct. But the individual news websites as an initial go-to source are themselves somewhat obsolescent in light of well-organized news aggregate sites, which are like constantly updating mega-newspapers.

    I particularly swear by the Google aggregate:

    How do you feel about this one? The default layout to me seems impeccable. I always feel like I immediately know what “big” is happening, and can then instantly drill down to literally thousands of specialized angles on some of the bigger stories. One thing I particularly like about this aggregate is that there is usually always a “local” news outlet included as one of the five or six immediately accessible links under any particular story. So within seconds you can hit the big picture national media takes, and then the local color take, and get a holistic overview of “what’s happening” in a very efficient manner.

    There’s a very powerful news-gathering algorithm under there, but it still takes a savvy human brain to organize it in a way that you can get to so much news, so quick, and then drill down so deep.

    Nothing out there like this for “local”, though (that I know). And is it just me or is The State website something hideous? Nasty tabs, cluttered sidebars, weird banners, and that CareerBuilder crap everywhere. I wonder if it was actually designed by someone local, or it’s just a sterile paint-by-numbers McClatchy template with a bunch of goop dumped on top of it.

    But of course, if I hadn’t just gone to to confirm it’s still hideous, I wouldn’t have just learned that a gorilla went on a brief rampage at Riverbanks today. “Zoo employee injured in gorilla escape”. There’s a headline you don’t see every day.

  3. jfx

    Yikes. And then right under that:

    “Chastity Bono announces sex change”

    Another one-in-a-million headline.

    An uncommon news day, indeed.

  4. Bart

    I know my day wasn’t complete until I read about Chasity Bono’s plan to have a sex change operation. After that, everything else in my universe seemed to right itself. Maybe the zoo employee can get some satisfaction reading about her decision and put the crazed gorilla attack in proper perspective. jfx, if you hear any more news about the operation, let me know. I wait in breathless anticipation. 🙂 (:

  5. Greg Flowers

    Why does the newspaper industry use the idiosyncratic spelling “lede”? Do you know the origins?

  6. Brad Warthen

    Greg, that I can answer: It was to avoid confusion with “lead,” as in the heavy metal. That spelling was used to refer to the stuff that type was made of. So there was the material, and then there was the concept of a top story.

    And actually, “lede” most properly refers to the beginning of a story — the first graf (paragraph to laymen). Some of us also use it to refer to the top story on a page or in the paper.

    The variant spelling isn’t really as critical in that second sense, because you were somewhat less likely to need to communicate to someone in the composing room the idea that something was the lead or lede story, but you very well might refer in your editing marks to the lede graf, and want to distinguish it from the “lead,” or “leading,” referring to strips of metal used to space type. That sense of “leading” by the way survives in modern word processors to refer to spacing in the type.

    In the editorial department of The State, we used “lede” to refer to the main editorial. On days when we had two or more editorials, the subsequent ones were referred to as “backups.”

    We could as easily have called those edits “leads” without confusion, but I liked the quirky archaic spelling, and others in the department adopted the practice.

  7. Greg Flowers

    Very interesting. Now that you spell it out it makes perfect sense. In many (if not most) languages using an alphabet this would not have been a problem because if two words sounds differently they will be spelled differently and words that sound the same are spelled the same.

  8. KP

    I’m glad y’all asked the lede question. I’ve always wondered.

    I like your news summary and I hope you keep doing it. I read the Internet news aggregate sites every day, but sometimes less is more. I like having your perspective.

  9. Brad Warthen

    Long as I’m sharing esoteric facts, to a lot of typesetters and compositors, the actual SOUND difference wouldn’t have mattered. A lot of composing room workers were deaf. It was a good job where they were not at a disadvantage, because everything was communicated visually. The linotype machines were so noisy, you see.
    Those jobs are long gone now, of course. Most papers dropped linotype machines in the 70s, and computerized pagination pretty much eliminated most of the rest of the composing room in the 90s.

  10. Kathryn Fenner

    Please, sir, may I have some more?

    Excellent! You must preserve the excellence you have developed and be The Columbia Record.

    Thank you,

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