The Face of News

I asked one of our editors last week if he reads The New York Times online. “Not really,” he said. “Too old fashioned, it feels very stilted, very stuffy.”

I asked him about the Guardian.

“Love the Guardian.”

“It’s just a bunch of pictures,” I protested.

“That’s my generation,” he answered.

A headline, a picture and a click. He said USA Today was coming on the scene just as he was starting to read the news, and its short, bite-sized bits of information – mocked at the time – laid the groundwork for the news alerts on your mobile phone today.

The editor gets his news from social media feeds during the day, the local NBC affiliate’s morning and nightly news broadcast, and CNN International in the late night. With that package, he remains remarkably well informed on the news trends in California, nationally and internationally.

I then asked one of our youngest reporters who is very tech-savvy where he gets his news.

“Twitter!” he answered immediately. “And sometimes Reddit.”

He selects his sources ahead of time, articles by certain columnists or stories on given subjects, and they flow into his Twitter and Reddit feeds.

In an effort to modernize our Courthouse News page, I have frequently checked the evolving websites of the traditionally dominant English-language newspapers, the LA Times, New York Times, Guardian, and the Washington Post to see how they handled the news.

At the same time, I have often been proud to read our own Courthouse News site at the end of the day, and see interesting and original stories that reflect the number of locations where Courthouse News employs reporters.

But now I realize we the editors are largely publishing for ourselves, since almost no one else reads the news on a desktop computer anymore. So we need to reform our method of delivering the news, and it is like learning a new language.

I told our editors and programmers that we start with the knowledge that there is a still a thirst for news, now more than ever. People stay informed, they are curious about the world around them and they read plenty.

But a news cycle that once turned on a 24-hour axis now revolves in minutes.

For example, journalists traditionally checked the clerk’s office for new filings at the end of the day, looking for stories to publish in the next morning’s newspaper. Now the end-of-day review results in stories published as soon as a reporter can write them.

They are read through electronic devices that, like a newspaper, you hold in your hand. But unlike print, they are almost alive, and they update themselves as the day goes along.

In reviewing the websites for the big newspapers, I saw huge variations. But one common convention is that the top story is always placed at the screen’s upper left.

But the top story in a print newspaper always ran on the other side of the front page, the upper right.

Why?

It doesn’t seem natural, because the eye tends to read left to right, just as you would for a book or magazine. The editor I was talking to immediately thought of the newsies, the boys on the street hawking newspapers, the source of many newspaper traditions. And I suspect he is right.

It probably had to do with how the paper was folded under their arms to sell on the street corner or folded before it was tossed on the porch. It was always folded on the left side, which necessarily meant the right side of the page was on top. Thus, the right was where the top story was placed.

That guess is as good as any. Because, while the internet seems to be a quick reference guide to all things, the source of the convention for top story placement in a newspaper seems to have been lost in time.

I waffled on it at the beginning, double-barreling our two top stories, at the top right and top left of our website. But that view works only on a stand-up computer. It does not flow correctly on a mobile and it looks terrible on a tablet.

Almost everything about our news site now needs reinvention.

The Guardian’s website, for example, sets out only a modified sort of headline where the words are not capitalized and read more like an unpunctuated partial sentence. That modified headline is accompanied by a picture, and that’s it.

The New York Times, on the other hand, runs a traditional headline with all major words capitalized accompanied by a paragraph of text that is a full sentence or two and synopsizes the story.

Which way to go – newspapers past or news websites future. The decisions are myriad, involving aesthetics, convention, necessity and a gut sense.