Public Editor

Readers and journalists don’t always agree on what makes for front-page news

Readers and journalists usually agree on what constitutes important news, I have found. But there is often a disconnect between the two groups when it comes to which stories they feel should get priority in the paper.

This discussion centers necessarily around The Kansas City Star’s print edition, of course. Unlike news on the Internet, TV or radio, a daily newspaper is a snapshot in time. Readers love to quibble with editors’ decisions about which topics deserve a spot on Page A1, in particular. Landing on the cover is a sure sign that a story, photo or graphic has been deemed worthy of prime placement.

Many readers think those leading positions should always go to the most important stories of the day. And the majority of people who contact me with these criticisms say the front page should consist of nothing but “hard news” — no human interest features, no photography whose primary appeal is visual beauty, and certainly no sports.

Every afternoon I attend a news meeting of editors and designers where one of the main topics is what to put on Page A1 the next morning. The first order of business is for me to tell the room what I have been hearing from the readers.

Comments I had gathered last Thursday are a good example of how some of The Star’s audience views the paper differently from the editors putting it together. I had spoken to multiple readers that day who complimented the cover for its content about anger among the national electorate, Jimmy Carter’s cancer diagnosis, and river contamination from a Colorado mine spill. “Good, serious news,” said one caller.

I had also heard criticisms of the page. One caller thought developments in the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s private email server deserved a mention out front. Another said the centerpiece photo of a woman preparing a rooster for competition in the Missouri State Fair wasn’t worthy of its prominent play.

After delivering my report, I noticed a look of what I could characterize as bemusement on a few editors’ faces. That’s because to many journalists’ eyes, that particular paper had missed the mark.

Generally speaking, editors at The Star strive to put together a selection of topics on the front page that have specific relevance to the Kansas City area. While national and international news often factors into that mix, stories with connections to the region tend to have a stronger chance of making it onto the page. They should explain why Kansas Citians should care.

And bylines by Star writers are very important. That particular day’s page had only one story and one photo by Star staffers.

At the time I said, quite seriously, that I think there is a subset of readers who would be quite happy to get an A section filled with nothing but wire stories on national and international topics. Those are the stories that dominate on the cable news channels and national papers such as USA Today. Those sources don’t have a home town to serve, so they focus on the lingua franca.

I realize that not all readers feel the same way, and A1 features that focus on feel-good or even silly topics often generate some of the biggest compliments at my lines. It’s always a balancing act, and reader feedback is a valuable tool for journalists to gauge whether they are connecting with their audience’s interests.