Designing a news front-page as events unfold

When editors were mapping out last Friday’s print editions in our Thursday afternoon news meeting, we faced an option regarding the issue of police shootings. Wire news budgets included a selection of second-day follows about the circumstances and victim in the case involving Philando Castile in suburban St. Paul, Minnesota, plus a more analytical look at the influence of video evidence in situations like that and the case a few days earlier of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge.

Wire editors proposed an update on the Castile case for the front page with an inset line referring readers to the analysis inside. Managing Editor Jim Baumann wondered aloud whether it shouldn’t be other way around, and the table quickly came to that consensus.

“It gives people something more than the feel of just ‘the police shooting of the day’,” said one editor.

So, the analysis was scheduled for the front page in a position that seemed appropriate — beneath the bigger news at the time of Republican congressmen grilling the FBI director over his decision not to recommend prosecution of Hillary Clinton for the way she managed her email as U.S. secretary of state and next to a well-photographed feature about the final days of suburban icon Haeger Potteries.

Sometime after 9 p.m., with the deadline for our earliest editions rapidly approaching, the night news desk began hearing indications of an event that bore watching. There were preliminary reports of shots fired at a protest being held in Dallas. Based on the sketchy initial reports, editors began re-making the inside page that originally contained second-day coverage of the Minnesota shooting. It would not be until just minutes before the final deadline for those early editions set for Lake County delivery that they would learn that police officers had been killed — the count at the time was three.

Editors hustled to do what they could to get the latest news in the paper as prominently as circumstances allowed. For those Lake County editions, and editions in the southern Fox Valley that closely follow, ┬áthat meant prominent “refers” placed within the video analysis piece to the bigger news coverage inside. This was not ideal, the editors knew, but it managed to get the news onto the front page with up-to-date coverage prominently displayed inside.

With those editions behind them, they could turn their attention to the later editions serving the upper Fox Valley, DuPage and Cook counties. For these editions, they re-made the front pages, keeping up with constant updates, moving the video analysis to the top with a picture from Dallas and putting the Clinton story in the lower position.

Managing all these changes across multiple editions and multiple pages is a feat of some resourcefulness and skill. In a report to editors at 2 a.m., after all the editions had been put to bed, night editor Neil Holdway said that in retrospect he was “feeling woefully inadequate” about the way the story ended up being played. While some readers no doubt agreed with him — and we heard from a few — he was perhaps being a bit hard on himself. Many prominent daily newspapers facing similar deadline schedules didn’t get the story on their front pages at all.

Working the night copy desk requires an uncommon combination of editing and page-design skill, news judgment and ingenuity. Breaking stories like the Dallas police shootings with constant, sometimes conflicting updates, challenge every area.

Among the weighty decisions Holdway and his team had to make, for instance, was whether to include a picture and description of a man being widely circulated as the possible shooter. They resisted, noting our restrictions against publishing the identities of suspects and recalling the case of Richard Jewell, falsely accused because of sketchy early evidence in the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Olympics. They were wise. The man pictured in Dallas turned out to have nothing to do with the shootings.

Many other details remained unclear even late into the day Friday, but by then we had time to analyze the scope and impact of the shootings and build a three-page coverage plan that provided detail and context. It’s nice when you have several hours and lots of space to plan the presentation of an important news event. It’s also nice to have people who know how and when to modify those plans with little space available in a matter of minutes under unrelenting deadline pressure.

Jim Slusher, [email protected], is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Facebook at and on Twitter at @JimSlusher.

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