For 13 years now, I’ve been teaching journalism students about “the hierarchy of news” – the way news is arranged to tell readers what’s the most important story of the day, and so on down the list to the least important. Media actually send a strong, nonverbal message to readers about how valuable a story is, through a story’s placement (front page, top of page in a newspaper, the first story in the lineup in broadcasting), how much space or time we give the story, the size of the headline in print, and a variety of other means.
My conundrum is how to explain the top story in yesterday’s Plain Dealer to my classes on Monday. “Two new ways to make roads safer“ was the line story — the biggest headline, top of the front page, with photo. If featured the newly unveiled speed limit signs to be used on Ohio roadways.
Now, granted, this is a pretty exciting story — not! Let’s just say it’s not at the top of my list of news hits for the preceding 24 hours on Planet Earth. So I’m wondering how it got there. A few possible scenarios come to mind:
- Another story was there, and a top editor walked by the desk at 10 minutes to deadline and said, “No, we can’t run that story yet. Hold it till tomorrow.” So the person laying out the page plucked a story from page 42 and put it there because it had all the requisite features: a photo, the right length, etc.
- The alternate “line story” — which I found on the Metro front – “RTA needs ‘work’ but is on track for cuts, U.S. transit chief says” – got vetoed at the news meeting because some editor said, “Nobody cares about public transit.” So the story that was slated for the top of the Metro section was moved to the front page. It’s a perfect fit: same layout, same size, kind of.
- The Plain Dealer‘s editors know that the Road Rant column is one of the most popular things in the paper, so they figured that any story about traffic was more important than any story about public transit. This one is actually appealing to me more and more, because I have found that in Cleveland, people do not care much about public transit; they care about traffic, which seems to be getting worse all the time so it’s a major public issue. This is because they all drive cars (if they can) and don’t take public transit because the buses are always late, so only losers take the buses. The fact that the two issues are connected does not occur to them.
- The Plain Dealer is trying to drive away readers of its print edition in preparation for downsizing to three days a week and going online instead, at the end of the year. It wants to discourage print readers and get them online, and it doesn’t occur to them that this is not the way to make them rush to the website.
- The Saturday paper doesn’t matter because people are waiting for the Sunday paper, which does matter. (In Canada it’s the reverse, so my Canadian readers need to understand this.) Perhaps it’s one of the ones slated to disappear at the end of the year, so they’re trying to get people out of the habit of expecting real news there.
So I’m going with the third option. What do you think?