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Sunday, August 14, 2011

Editor Bill Keller on how The New York Times chooses Page 1 stories

The most important decisions in newsrooms all over the world usually involve the layout of the front page. So it will be interesting for aspiring journalists and newspaper readers to learn how one of the world's greatest newspapers goes about it. Here is Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, telling readers how he and his staff select stories and photographs for Page 1:

NUMERO UNO: "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," SAYS BILL KELLER.

There is no rigid formula to the selection of stories and photographs for the front page. We an argumentative group of editors try every day to assemble a selection of articles that are important and interesting, but many variables influence the outcome. Some days, we gather for our Page 1 meeting with no doubt about the main stories of the day. Sometimes an event that is undeniably important falls short of the front page because it is unsurprising. Conversely, an event that initially seems like more of the same can seem major when you take into account all the circumstances.

Indian newspapers sometimes feature as many as 20 stories big and small on Page 1; more likely than not, you will see a dozen items on our cluttered front pages. The idea seems to be to have something for everyone on the cover itself. But the NYT has a different philosophy:

Most days we have room for six stories and an "Inside" box on the front page, so every candidate jostles with competing news. We try, moreover, not to have an overly homogeneous page ALL foreign stories, or ALL business stories, or ALL Washington stories. We think 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.

Keller also talks about the evolution of the newspaper front page in this era of hyper-coverage on television and on the web and elaborates on how his newspaper treats a news event whose "factual outline" has already been widely available before the NYT goes to press:

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.

BILL KELLER
These fascinating insights into the workings of a newspaper come in a regular column, "Talk to The Times", in which The New York Times invites readers to submit questions for Times editors, reporters, columnists and executives. Just take a look at the long list of journalists who have interacted with readers and answered all kinds of questions. No newspaper in India cares to get so close to its readers. I wonder why that is.

Read the full Q&A with Bill Keller here.

PS: The New York Times policy is to not clutter Page 1 with ads. How refreshing.