This is an existential question when you are the front page or homepage editor of a newspaper, and the answer is, drumroll… it depends. Take a look at the front pages above from four newspapers in New York City on Feb. 21, 2020. They all have different lead stories but some overlapping ones as well.
One of the first things editors consider when making this decision is their audience. The Daily News and New York Post are what’s known as tabloids because of their smaller size—11 inches by 17 inches. Urban dwellers often prefer tabloids because they’re easier to read on public transportation. Over time, tabloids have become known for their flashy headlines, cheeky style, and sometimes sensational stories, so that’s what their audiences expect, especially on the front page. Of course, many of them, like The Daily News, also do excellent in-depth reporting.
The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are known as broadsheets because of their larger size. Usually, broadsheets take a more conventional approach to the news with serious headlines, a more formal writing style, and longer stories, although some would argue the online editions of broadsheets are becoming more like tabloids with bolder layouts, racier headlines, and a more informal tone. Whether in print or online, though, broadsheet readers expect a sober and serious look at the day’s major news stories.
One situation unique to The New York Times is the idea of “swing” stories, which run on the front page of the local edition but appear somewhere inside the national edition. The Times has two slightly different editions because it is both a hometown paper for New York City and the paper of record for the country. Front-page stories that may be of the utmost importance to New Yorkers may be of only peripheral interest to a national audience.
So as you can see, audience is always one of the first considerations when determining which stories will grace the front page or homepage, and editors pride themselves on knowing what their readers will like and which stories will matter to them the most.
But that’s not the only factor. Editors also consider a story’s importance and interest. Take a look at this graph that shows the intersection of importance vs. interest. Ideally, you want stories in the upper right quadrant that are both high interest and high importance. That’s the sweet spot for a front-page or homepage story. Sometimes, however, broadsheets will feature a high importance, lower interest story because they believe their audience needs to know about it—think international news, which is usually a harder sell, even for the typically more educated broadsheet reader.
Both tabloids and broadsheets will also publish high interest and lower importance stories. In The New York Times article, Making the Front Page: How All the News Fits in Print, Suzanne Daley explains that what constitutes a front-page story at The Times has evolved. She says you will now find everything from news analysis pieces and original reporting to lifestyle stories, including ones about toilet training, often to the dismay of veteran editors.
A final factor that is considered more and more is digital media data. Metrics that show the number of page views play an increasingly important role in determining what is featured more prominently online for obvious economic reasons. The more clicks, the more the news outlet can charge for advertising.
Despite all the technological changes in the news industry, there is still a certain cachet to landing a story on the front page of the paper for reporters, young and old. In fact, at The New York Times, Daley says it is a tradition to celebrate a reporter’s first front-page story with the metal plate of the page used by the printing plant, and that so far, no one is settling for just a screenshot of the homepage.