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Published January 14, 2020

THE VIEW FROM MY SEAT

The mechanics of how P1 is created at a metro daily

By Ernie Williamson / The Bulletin

Do you ever see a newspaper’s front page and wonder how it got that way? Who picked the stories? Why that picture? What idiot did that?

Because these kinds of questions will pop up frequently now that it’s an election year, let’s look at how front-page decisions are made at big city dailies.

Before retiring, I spent almost 45 years working on front pages at Houston metropolitan newspapers. I produced pages on war, peace, mass murders, hurricanes and space triumphs and space catastrophes.

The Houston area changed during that time and so did the media landscape. Newspaper editors are struggling to keep up with new technologies and shifting demographics.

When I started at the Houston Post in 1971, it was a male-dominated newsroom where front-page decisions were made by only a couple of editors. By the time the paper closed in 1995, it had a Hispanic editor, and news meetings had grown in size and become more inclusive. More views were presented.

Similarly, when I left the Houston Chronicle 6 years ago the selection process was also much more inclusive. There were almost 20 people in the Chronicle news meetings.

Most morning newspapers follow similar meeting schedules. If you have seen the movies “Spotlight” or “All the President’s Men,” you received an accurate glimpse at how these meetings work.

At a mid-morning meeting, department heads present to a senior editor what they are covering that day. Department heads include those supervising local, national and world news, business, sports, photography, various bureaus and features sections such as fashion, food and entertainment.

And, of course, today there are online editors. In truth, the rapid growth of the web has reduced the importance of the news meetings because now news decisions are being made all day.

At that morning meeting, a senior editor will ask questions and usually give guidance about the most promising stories. Although nothing is finalized, everyone goes back to work with a plan for the day, knowing it could all change.

There is a late afternoon meeting of the same people, plus the night editor and a page designer. It is at this meeting that editors argue stories on or off the front page. Many reporters and editors still measure their successes by how many of their stories end up on the front page.

Much of the afternoon meeting is devoted to selecting pictures and designing the page. The design of the page will dictate the size of the headlines to be written later on.

To keep a wall between the newsroom and the editorial department, editorial and opinion page editors don’t attend these meetings.
As the makeup of the news meetings has changed, so have the types of stories selected for the front page. When I started at newspapers, front pages were dominated by government announcements, crime stories, meetings between world leaders and pictures of public officials and businessmen.

Now some of those stories have been pushed back into the paper and replaced by more analysis, more lifestyle stories and more enterprise reporting.

One thing hasn’t changed: Local news is a priority.

It’s the job of the night editor and his team to execute the plan. They make sure stories meet expectations, that they are edited properly and that headlines are accurate. The night editor will also make decisions on replacing agreed upon front-page stories with late-breaking news. One late bulletin can ruin a day’s planning.

All this is done on deadline. I did this job for years and only yelled “Stop the presses” once – that was the night of the Bush-Gore cliffhanger.

I always figured it was my job to get late news in the paper so there were occasions when, if the story was big enough, I would bust deadlines.

The next day there would be a familiar round of finger-pointing.

Folks in the field delivering papers, who often had other day jobs to get to, would complain to the pressroom that papers were late. The pressroom would go to the publisher and complain that it was the newsroom’s fault. The publisher would yell at my boss. My boss, of course, would go through the motions and scold me. He often had his fingers crossed.

I miss it.

(Ernie Williamson welcomes reader input. Please contact Ernie at williamsonernie@gmail.com. Or, send letters in care of The Bulletin, PO Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516)