Page One: How Does The New York Times Decide What Belongs?

Jon Bailey // Sep 18 // Insights

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It’s a tough job being the most respected media outlet in the world. And an even tougher job deciding what goes on Page One of the world’s most read newspaper every day. Pressure anyone?

In August, I had the opportunity to witness this process in action. I was invited to be a special guest at the famous “4 O’Clock Meeting”, where the managing editor of the The New York Times presides over a conference table seated with the editors of all the various news sections of the paper. In this meeting, each editor is called upon to pitch their top stories of the day. And in this meeting, these fine people decide what the world will be talking about the next day.

The power of being on Page One of The New York Times is undeniable. Whether it’s the print version or their very popular website, you either clamor to be there, or scramble to escape it. Either way, you will be thrust into the world’s harshest spotlight. Careers are made and lost, tragedies unfolded, victories celebrated. It’s kind of a big deal.

As they went around the table, sharing the stories their reporters had written about an array of interesting subjects, I was impressed with the speed of the process. Respectful but efficient, they moved at a quick pace as they analyzed each opportunity for maximum news value:

  • The coveted top right corner story was given to rebel uprisings in Syria, after editors asked for a rewrite to make it more “hard news”
  • The main photo was a tie between Usain Bolt winning record-setting Olympic Gold, and the confession and sentencing of Chinese murderer Gu Kailai, who poisoned a British colleague. (Usain won).
  • Stories about Romney’s ongoing tax issues were weighed against other top issues including gay marriage and parenthood, floods in The Phillipines.

It was so cool to see how the size of the main photo dictates how many stories can appear on the front page, and what length those stories can be. The photo editor’s job takes on new meaning in this scenario, as cropping that photo to fit within the column sizes literally means the difference between what is news, and what is not.

I know, I’m a news geek. But this is fascinating nonetheless. Particularly fascinating and applicable to the public relations work we do at i.d.e.a. - the better we understand the process of major news outlets, the better we can work with their editors and continue to score incredible placements on behalf of our brand partners.

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