Form over substance: When a big story gets buried

I see this happen a lot these days, but I ran across a couple of fairly dramatic examples yesterday in The Washington Post — or rather, on the Post’s iPad app, which is the only way I read the several newspapers to which I subscribe. So I thought I’d say something.

It’s particularly startling to an old newspaperman who once spent hours each day agonizing over the precise way to play each story — particularly on the front page, that premium real estate where you had only about six possible positions (some days five, and some days you’d cram on seven, but the goal for a diversified presentation of the biggest news of the day was six). Those of you who still look at the dead-tree version will think that sounds high, and you’re right. Over the last quarter century newspaper pages have shrunk and shrunk again, so it’s hard to get more than three or four stories on that page.

But online — even in a well-designed app that makes an effort to prioritize news and present it in a non-jumbled manner — you don’t see the same kind of agonizing over position, for a couple of reasons. First, there’s no time for it when deadline is always, always right NOW. Second, there’s no need when the space is unlimited. As with my blog — one reason I started blogging in 2005 was to shrug off the limitations. I can post as much as I can find time to post.

This is glorious in many ways. But in other ways, perspective and proportion fly out the window. One problem is that the most important news of the day — or the one deemed most interesting to readers (those are two different things, that we had ways of distinguishing between in the old days) — tends to spread out and dominate your first screen or maybe your first two. This happens for three reasons that I can spot:

  1. You can have as many different stories on this interesting thing as you have people to write. In the past, you’d have a main story and maybe a sidebar or two, and the sidebars were often played inside with the jump of the main copy.
  2. If you’re The Washington Post, and backed by Jeff Bezos’ wealth, you have plenty of people.
  3. Editors usually try to group related material together. But the only place to do that — the way most apps and browser sites are organized — is up front with the main story. While there are different “pages” you can reach by clicking on a category link (“Opinion,” “National,” “Sports,” etc.), containing additional content, there are no inside jump pages that the story on the “front” leads you to.

Anyway, on the Post’s app Wednesday morning, two big stories — one that would be big news any time, while the other would at least have been considered huge within recent memory — essentially got buried, to the extent that can happen when there is, for most practical purposes, just one gigantic page. They were:

  1. Epstein accomplice Ghislaine Maxwell sentenced to 20 years in prison — Remember when the charges against her were huge? It was a while ago — before COVID, I think — but the coverage of Epstein and Ms. Maxwell just went on and on. But here was the climax, the ultimate chapter, and… it was played way, way down, many screens down, more than halfway to the bottom of the available content on my app. In the subcategory of “National,” it was the fifth story listed — and of the four stories above it, only one was a breaking development: someone being attacked by a bison in Yellowstone Park. The others were “trend” stories, rather than breaking news.
  2. NATO summit developments — Maybe the Maxwell story was something in which the nation had only been momentarily interested — the scandal of the moment. But this is monumental stuff that at most times would have led a national newspaper. Actually, it was two ledes in one. One headline would be, “U.S. to increase military presence in Europe” (which is the headline you see on the link). The other would have been, “Sweden, Finland to be asked to join NATO.” Both in response, of course, to the biggest story in the world — Russia’s war on Ukraine, which everyone worries could be the opening of World War III.

Here’s the way the Maxwell story was played. I couldn’t get the headline onto this screenshot of the National block, but it’s the item where you see the courtroom artist’s drawing, bottom right:

As for the NATO story — at this point I must confess that I started writing this post yesterday (which is when I saved the screengrabs you see), then got pulled away. Of course, the app content is radically different now, so I can’t go back and see just how far down the NATO story was. But it was well past the first two or three screens, so fairly far down. The defense would be that it was packaged with other Ukraine war news, which you had to scroll down for, but that’s really not a great excuse.

What was played above these stories? Other important stories, I freely admit: The rather explosive Jan. 6 hearing from Tuesday (the testimony of Cassidy Hutchinson), and the ongoing aftershocks of the Roe ruling on Friday. Some Tuesday-night elections across the country as well.

But again, the problem is what I mentioned earlier. The Post now writes so many stories on the same subject, and packages them all together, so that other big news gets pushed far, far down. But it gets rather weird. For instance, Miss Hutchinson is a striking subject for a photograph, but the app showed me five such photos of her — all sitting at the table testifying, in her white suit, with pretty much the same serious expression — before I got down to the two “buried” stories I mention above.

On the screen displaying top stories from the Opinion section, there were three of those pictures. That’s because four of the eight columns or editorials on display were about the hearing. Three were about abortion. One was about something else. It was visually striking, to an eye seeking variety:

No, I’m not saying there should have been op-ed columns about the breaking stories on NATO and Ms. Maxwell. It was a bit soon for that. I am saying that in a medium in which you can provide an unlimited amount of content, it seems the screen promoting the most interesting opinion pieces of the moment should provide a tad more diversity.

Why am I boring you with this stuff that would only matter to an editor in the news trade? Well, because this is yet another thing contributing to our nation’s political schizophrenia. It’s not just people consuming social media instead of professionally presented mainstream media. It’s that the credible organizations, as hard as they try, present their well-crafted content in a way that leads to disproportionate responses among the reading public.

Once, news was presented to the readers in a way that carefully sought to give them — especially on the front page — a range of important news of the day, and to do so in a way that communicated relative importance of those stories.

While the new way of presenting content is wonderful — if you offered me dead-tree versions of all the papers I subscribe to, I still wouldn’t read them; this is much preferable — this way of presenting all that content is an invitation to obsession. Give me eight or ten stories about the same thing on the only screen I can see without scrolling, and you invite me to develop the impression that THIS IS THE ONLY THING WORTH THINKING ABOUT. Which I think helps explain some of the overly excited responses you see these days to news.

Anyway, editors are still trying — and I can see them trying hard — to sort all this out. Maybe they will work out ways to restore a sense of proportion, while still presenting all this added content. I hope so.

And in fact, the editors at The New York Times seem to be a bit farther along toward achieving that. Shortly after seeing what I described above, I opened my NYT app and saw the NATO  developments clearly leading the paper. See below. I thought, “It’s been a little while. Maybe the Post has done the same now.” But I looked, and it had not….





I was struck by that in two


16 thoughts on “Form over substance: When a big story gets buried

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Hey, y’all — I can’t get to it today, but remind me I want to write a related post that defends a newspaper being that was being criticized for the way it played a story on its browser product.

    The person I was arguing with was my Rep. Micah Caskey, who presented a GOP-leaning critique offering the conventional “bias” interpretation of why a story was played the way it was. The sort of thing you hear a lot from non-journalists, and which is usually nonsense. People, even smart people like Micah, tend to see what they want to see. Which is understandable, since they’ve never had to think about the factors that an editor has to deal with in the real world.

    I react by saying — as detailed in this lengthy post — that there are a LOT of problems with journalism today. But it’s not about politics — at least, not in the way so many misperceive. And I offered him an explanation of why the story was played the way it was — online and in print.

    This was a couple of weeks ago — in fact, on the day after the primary, when Micah had (just barely) squeaked by to save his seat. But some of it was conducted in writing, so I think I can recreate it…

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Hmmm. I thought some of that conversation had been conducted by email, but it hadn’t. I had just responded with some reply tweets, and then we talked for awhile on the phone.

      But I can probably remember it well enough, especially since I saved the pages under discussion. It will just take longer to put together, writing most of it from scratch…

  2. Brad Warthen Post author

    Oh, by the way, speaking of form over substance… I mentioned above a form-dictated feature of the old paper version of presentation that readers, probably including many of y’all — just HATED: the jumps.

    I used to get more complaints from people not wanting to have to turn some pages to read the rest of the story than about almost anything.

    But as I say above, that “inconvenience” had an advantage that few laypeople stopped to think about. By putting only the first few inches of each story on the front page, you made room to present a broader, more inclusive picture on the front of what was going on in the world. Which, faced with the space constraints, I would choose to do every time.

    What this post is about is some problematic aspects about how editors who are NOT faced with the same space constraints are making use of their opportunities.

    With most papers, anyway. An important exception: The Wall Street Journal. The first screen of its app presents all of its front-page news an a form as close as possible as what appears on the front of the paper version. And you don’t have jumps — you just click, and you get the whole story.

    It has a lot of advantages.

  3. Pat

    I feel the gun legislation that was passed has been greatly overshadowed by the Roe v Wade decision and other news coming behind it. I want to know what it accomplishes and to give proper praise to those who finally got something done.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      Good point. A lot of stuff has been overshadowed, not so much as the Roe decision, but by the reaction to it.

      But maybe the court’s decision on the climate issue will emerge from the “penumbra” a bit…

      Those things said, yes. We should celebrate that Congress did something, even though it’s inadequate. Congress doing something is a very positive departure from recent years…

      1. Ken

        Those of you who still jibe at “penumbras” and scoff at implied rights like that to privacy should read the recent op-ed by constitutional law professor Solomon Stevens in The Post and Courier ( He writes in part:

        “It is true that there is no reference to a right to privacy in the Constitution. But let’s take a step back from that for a moment. The landmark case of Marbury v. Madison (1803) established the basic power of judicial review. And as Justice John Marshall points out in that case, there is no reference to the power of judicial review in the Constitution.”

        “Some specifics are mentioned in the Constitution (as in the First, Fourth and Fifth amendments), but others are implied. Like judicial review. As the Ninth Amendment states: ‘The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny to disparage others retained by the people.’ ”
        This is important. Our Founders wanted to be clear. Not all of our rights are ‘enumerated’ in the document they bequeathed to us. But I would go further: The right to privacy is not just one more implied right. It is absolutely central to the existence of limited government. It defines limited government.”

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Well, that’s an interesting perspective.

          I don’t share it. In fact, I would have said the opposite of those last couple of lines. Marbury was about figuring out how this new mechanism — the Constitution — was going to work. Since as you say, not everything was set out, there were some things that needed to be decided. And then once decided, see if they stand up going forward. Sometimes, they become the rock upon which the system is based — which is the case with Marbury.

          Roe was a case of picking a side in a culture war that rising up and starting to divide the country in the 1970s — removing it from the political branches, where such matters would normally be decided (and had always BEEN decided) — and creating a new individual right (or rather, borrowing one from Griswold) telling our legislative bodies they no longer had a say in the matter.

          That’s about as different from sussing out the powers held by the institutions created by a new Constitution — an absolutely essential process — as you can get. Marbury helped in setting the country on a stable course. Roe, by contrast, has been tearing us apart for almost 50 years, warping our politics and our confidence in the rule of law — and will continue to do so for years to come. The only difference is that for 50 years, one side in the Kulterkampf was outraged and clawing and hammering at the system to try to get its way, and now it’s the other side.

          Marbury and Roe were situations about as different as rulings can get. You indicate that between the two, Roe was more appropriate. I take the opposite position, and choose Marbury…

        2. Barry

          “Our Founders wanted to be clear. Not all of our rights are ‘enumerated’ in the document they bequeathed to us. But I would go further: The right to privacy is not just one more implied right. It is absolutely central to the existence of limited government. It defines limited government.”

          I could not agree more. The argument against a right to privacy is so poor, it’s not one I even entertain.

          This weekend I read about a lady in Texas who found out her baby had no heart valves and had other serious problems that would not allow it to live outside the womb.

          Even worse, the mom had experienced cervical cancer and as her pregnancy advanced, her doctor advised her that continuing to carry her baby could cause her serious or terminal health problems .

          She and her husband had to leave the state of Texas to get her abortion because they could not get a doctor to risk aborting the baby for fear of prosecution.

          She and her husband were lucky, They had the means to travel.

          But my thoughts quickly turned to scared young women without the means to travel- and only having the option to give birth and people telling her to risk her young life for a baby that can’t live anyway- Evil indeed.

          Thankfully, there are many states that are still protecting women.

  4. Barry

    The country has changed a lot in the last week or so. It’s irrecoverably broken in many ways.

    5 of the 9 justices (The majority) serving on the Supreme Court were nominated by presidents who lost the popular vote in their first term.

    (George W Bush did win a 2nd term with a majority of the popular vote and nominated 2 justices)

    The citizens of the country are not only opposed on many key issues, they are very angry about it and see some of those issues as moral questions where there is no compromise possible with the evil people on the other side of the issue.

    The Republican justices on the court do not want the court to do anything if Congress didn’t spell out something specifically- except of course when a Democratic controlled Congress does it. If a Democratic controlled Congress passed it into law, then it’s unconstitutional.

    I am sick of arguing about abortion. . My teen daughter (and millions like her) will always have the option of having an abortion if the need ever arose because we have the ability to travel anywhere required at a moment’s notice. Of course poor women won’t have that choice. Many will still get an abortion of course- but they’ll do it privately and at great and unnecessary risk.

    But no one will change their mind- I certainly won’t. In fact, I’m more entrenched now than ever.

    The country is tearing apart in many ways. Families are tearing apart. Many people won’t even talk to each other anymore because of political differences that are severe.

    1. Doug Ross

      The Supreme Court is what it is in terms of judicial philosophy because a) Hillary ran a lazy race and didn’t put in the effort to win and b) Ruth Bader Ginsburg wanted to die on the court. Had RBG quit when she should have, these cases would be different. So blame Hillary and Ginsburg… elections have consequences.

  5. Barry

    Beautifully said

    “Whatever else you think about originalism, it is peculiar that the question of whether women have the right to control their own pregnancies depends entirely on texts that not a single woman was allowed to help draft, vote on, or ratify.” – James , author of The Wisdom of Crowds

    1. Barry

      “James Surowiecki“

      “ I think there is an unenumerated constitutional right to bodily autonomy, based on the common-law right and protected by the 9th Amendment. But if the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment had been written by all women, I suspect that right would have been made more explicit.”

    2. Brad Warthen Post author

      And I’m sure that makes a great deal of sense to anyone who believes that abortion is about “whether women have the right to control their own pregnancies,” and not about whether another human being gets to live.

      That’s the big cognitive divide we have here..

      1. Barry

        Yes- it’s irreconcilable.

        I’ll never see it your way- and you’ll never see it my way.

        Yes, I do believe women have the right to control their own pregnancies- at least up to a point- especially compared to politicians, Brad, or someone else.

        Now, would my choice me for them to give birth to a healthy child. Yes, that would be my preference. But I am not going to use the power of the government to enforce my personal choice. Not going to happen.

        The nutty part is- women will still get abortions. They aren’t going to stop. Many women will simply get them and no one will ever know- much like already happens- except poor women will be getting them in more dangerous ways.

        Women in my family will be able to seek one with a qualified medical professional in a professional environment.

        Big KUDOS to the states – and even countries – that are setting up networks and making it easier (easier financially too) for women to travel should they so decide.

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