This week the New York Times attempted to address its sharply declining revenue by introducing an occasional advertisement at the bottom of A1, the latest blip in the evolution of the front page. Times reporter James Barron contributed to the book The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages and says watching changes to page one provides a visual history of news-making in the U.S.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week, The New York Times attempted to address its sharply declining revenue by introducing an occasional but prominent ad at the bottom of page one. To the purist, it’s an intrusion, a violation of the choicest part of the Gray Lady’s anatomy. To the realist, it’s merely a reflection that in these troubled times you sell what you got. And online speculation says an ad on the Sunday front page can go for 100 grand. But this is hardly the first change to page one. When the times began on September 18th, 1851, it was called The New York Daily-Times. There were no pictures or jumps, and the page was cluttered and crammed. But it’s had countless facelifts over the years, clearly charted in the book The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages. Times reporter James Barron contributed to the book, and he says one big change was the introduction of bylines, unheard of in the paper’s first century. He says that after World War II the paper promoted its star reporters on page one.
JAMES BARRON: Did it make people try to do better writing? I think probably it did. The paper reads better now than it did before. There’s a lot of stuff you have to wade through in some of those early papers – the words, not necessarily the story.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They are written so turgidly and with complete transcripts rather than summaries attached so no context seemed to be provided within the individual stories.
JAMES BARRON: See -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Just a bunch of stuff.
JAMES BARRON: I'm trying not to say that, because 100 years from now somebody will be sitting where you’re sitting and they'll be looking at stories I wrote [BROOKE LAUGHS] and saying the same thing. That’s why I [LAUGHS] let you say that. [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: One thing I noticed on those early front pages are not only are the stories very, very long but sometimes the headlines are, too. There’s one about Teddy Roosevelt being shot where you don't even need the story. The entire [LAUGHS] story is in the headline.
JAMES BARRON: Well, and it has a point of view. October 15th, 1912, two-line headline all across the front page, and here’s what it says. It says, “Maniac in Milwaukee Shoots Colonel Roosevelt. He Ignores Wound, Speaks an Hour, Goes to Hospital.” [BROOKE LAUGHS] Well, you’re, right, that pretty much does it [BROOKE LAUGHS]. And a little bit of editorial comment about the stability of the gunman.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] The only thing that I learned from the story that, you know, I'm sorry they didn't [LAUGHS] get to squeeze in the headline was that bullet was stopped [LAUGHS] by the text of Teddy Roosevelt’s speech.
JAMES BARRON: Yes, yes, I do remember, yes.
[LAUGHTER] And a fine stemwinder it was. [BROOKE LAUGHS] It took an hour to deliver.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You really see the first draft of history. Can you point me to one or two front pages that would have been written differently with the benefit of hindsight?
JAMES BARRON: Well, if we were doing the Gettysburg Address now, we would have led with what Lincoln said there. We led the paper that day with a story about the war. The headline was, “Important from East Tennessee.” Under that was a subhead that said, “The rebels advancing upon Knoxville.” And then you got a story headlined, “The Heroes of July.” This was the story about what happened at Gettysburg, and the lead on that story began like this. “The ceremonies attending the dedication of the National Cemetery commenced this morning by a grand military and civic display under command of Major-General Couch.” What Lincoln said was very short, and we printed it in its entirety midway down the front page because Lincoln was basically an afterthought. The idea of what history remembers from that, this very short, eloquent, touching speech by Lincoln, the reporter on the scene didn't apparently see quite the significance of it, or, under the conventions of the day, didn't shape the article around that.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You've also noted that when you look back at headlines, you really get to see the context for historic events. I think you noted March 21st, 1933. On the right side of the paper you see an article explaining how Franklin Delano Roosevelt will get extraordinary new executive powers to address the economy.
JAMES BARRON: That's right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And then on the left side of the front page, what do you find?
JAMES BARRON: “Reichstag Meeting Today is prepared to Give Hitler Full Control as Dictator.” It would have been fascinating to have been able to sit in on the page one meeting that day and see how they decided.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Sometimes you can foresee the significance of events and sometimes you can't. But I think there were omissions that perhaps the paper needed to answer for. For instance, there was nothing on page one, at least while it was going on, about the Holocaust.
JAMES BARRON: I know, and that’s troubling. And I can't go back and ask the editors who were there then, what did you know, and why, if you knew about it, why you didn't put this on the front page. It’s just very troubling to me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I think maybe we can learn something about the conventions of journalism by comparing two similar events both covered by The Times, Lincoln’s assassination and Kennedy’s assassination. When Lincoln was assassinated, the word that was used on the front page was “awful” – “awful news.”
JAMES BARRON: Yeah.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the Kennedy assassination?
JAMES BARRON: Was told much more factually, if you want to put it that way. Let me read that headline. It said, “Kennedy Is Killed by Sniper As He Rides In Car In Dallas; Johnson Sworn In On Plane.” Well, the editorializing had gone over to the editorial page. The opinion about the event, the describing the event in the way “awful news” makes it sound, that was left for the editorial page. Tom Wicker, who wrote the story that day - it’s an inverted pyramid story. “President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today.” Period. That’s the lead.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There was a Pew study recently, and it found that for the first time more people are getting their news online, something like 45 percent compared to newspapers, which is apparently 35 percent. I'm surprised it’s that high. If people are getting their news from, say, The New York Times website, they don't get the full benefit, I guess, of the editor’s notion of what ought to be front page news because they aren't seeing the front page. They're seeing something else.
JAMES BARRON: Well, they get a different sense of it. Newspapers, if you think about it, are about setting priorities. That’s what editors do by organizing the front page. That’s a snapshot of a day. If you go to the home page of Nytimes.com, it’s a snapshot of a much shorter period, but it’s still determined by editors who go to the same meetings during the day as the editors who determine what goes on the front page of the print version. So what you get at the top of the home page may be two or three stories at two minutes of 3 o’clock or something. That’s what’s important at that point. It’s a smaller window.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I see what you’re saying, that there still is, you know, very strict editorial supervision of what goes on the home page. But I have to say as a reader, I read it differently. I don't pay as much attention to those stories that are being featured. I tend to go down to the sections that I want to more quickly, and I don't get to have the accidental encounter with those other stories that I might see if I were turning physical pages. So my experience of the paper is very different online, and the importance of those editorial decisions about what comes first is much diminished.
JAMES BARRON: And I think that’s one of the things that journalism is going to have to grapple with if the shift continues that the Pew study found.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, this week The New York Times joined other major U.S. papers by introducing a small ad at the bottom of the front page. Now, isn't this sacred real estate? What does this say about the state of the newspaper, or at least about the state of the front page of the newspaper?
JAMES BARRON: What it says is a lot of other newspapers have tried that and it’s worked for them. They've found advertisers who want to be in that space because the front page gets attention for them -
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Of course!
JAMES BARRON: - the same way it gets attention for stories.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Of course. No advertiser would turn down the front page. They just never had the opportunity to get on it before.
JAMES BARRON: Well, no. Now, The Times did have short little ads, two or three lines of tiny type at the bottom of the front page, until a few years ago. People would buy them to propose or to say happy birthday to somebody. For a while I think there was a cable company that bought them.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tiny, tiny three lines, just those little -
JAMES BARRON: Yes.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - lost pieces at the bottoms of the columns. Hardly visible.
JAMES BARRON: And this was different, but times are different now. Our readership has migrated to the Web. These are hard times for newspapers. I can't think of any softer way to put it, and plenty harder that I can think of.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, do you think that this is some Rubicon that shouldn't have been crossed? Or, as a employee of The Times, would you rather not be asked that question?
JAMES BARRON: I'll take [LAUGHS] the Fifth on this one, please.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] James, thank you very much.
JAMES BARRON: Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: James Barron is a reporter at The New York Times and a contributor to the book The New York Times: The Complete Front Pages 1851 to 2008.