Bud Herron: Top story isn’t what it used to be

Back when I was a 20-something newspaper reporter, I asked an older and wiser co-worker (I think he must have been at least 30) to explain to me how editors decide which story to place at the top of the front page.

Those were the days before news started going electronic — an age when nearly all newspapers actually had pages made of paper (a thin sheet of processed tree pulp) with words printed in ink. Even many people under 50 got their news that way back then.

Editors picked what they thought was the highest-impact news of the day — the story local readers most likely would drop a quarter into a vending machine to read or remember when their home delivery subscriptions came up for renewal.

My older and wiser co-worker told me he suspected the decisions were based on two criteria: 1. emotional pull of the content and 2. the distance from the editor’s desk to the event.

He said both criteria could be mathematically determined with an equation using reader interest as an inverse proportion to distance. (Stay with me here.) I told him I didn’t do numbers or remember anything about high school algebra, so he explained in what we now call “Word.”

A savvy editor quickly learned a headline about a local fender bender, accompanied by a picture of a wrecked automobile, sold better than snow cones in Death Valley. A headline about 50,000 people killed in an earthquake in Mongolia sold about enough newspapers to line a parakeet cage.

He said reader interest in an event, as well as the degree and longevity of emotional concern, declines steadily the farther the event happens from the reader’s front door.

(I don’t want to get too technical here, but on a scale of 1 to 100, a murder in Columbus gets at least 95, if it occurred in a location near the reader’s home. If the killing took place in Indianapolis, it gets about a 50 — if the person was the same race and roughly in the same socio-economic class as the reader. Murders in economically depressed areas of Indianapolis get around 25, unless some unusual emotional information boosts the score.)

In any case, my friend said the thing to remember is people are very provincial creatures whose world view is based mostly on how events directly affect “me and mine.” Many people do have strong emotional triggers to tragedy, injustice, violence and abuse, but are hampered by extremely short attention spans.

Luckily, fewer and fewer newspapers today have to worry about algebraic formulas for selecting the top story of the day. The number of people reading news selected by an editor and printed on sheets of processed tree pulp have been in steep decline for more than 30 years.

A greater and greater portion of people interested in the news of the day now connect their various electronic devices to websites. Websites — even those operated by actual newspaper companies — are like “choose your own adventure” books.

Still, if readers search around, most newspaper websites (including The Republic) have “e-editions” where they can read the news in “page format” that looks just like the printed edition. They still can see what the editor has chosen as the most important story of the day by the big headline at the top of the electronic page.

The advantage of skipping the printed or the formatted e-edition is readers don’t have a pesky editor deciding for them what is important and what is not. They can be their own editors and decide for themselves what they need to know and what they don’t need to know about the world without a guilt-inducing headline.

And, as far as the outrage and emotions the editor’s story selection saddled them with until their short attention span killed off concern, that problem can be eliminated altogether.