Death of the front page
A funny thing has happened to newspapers over the last year and though we’ve all noticed it, few of us have bothered to discuss this development.
Which is odd, because you would have thought that somebody would have written an obituary by now.An obituary of page one.
Almost from the time I started out in journalism, I was told that page one was the key to any newspaper. It was the one page where you were more or less obliged to carry the main news of the day, or, in other words, the same news as everybody else.
The challenge, therefore, was to write and present the news in a manner that was different from all other papers. If you handled the top story of the day significantly differently from the way the competition did, then you were declaring that yours was the better paper.
Most newspapers developed a formula for page one: lead story on top; funny, quirky anchor at the bottom; etc. And all of us vied to think of interesting graphics which would tell our stories better than the competition’s.
My reason for focusing so much on page one in my days as a newspaper editor was because I believed it set the tone for the newspaper. Others had different reasons. We inherited our obsession with page one from Britain where newspapers tend to be sold on the newsstands not delivered at home. So, just because somebody read your paper on Monday it did not follow that he would do the same on Tuesday unless you gave him a page one that really hooked him. While we are less dependent on newsstand sales in India, many of us still used the British justification.
Then, in the 21st century as newspaper managements were largely taken over by semi-literate men who didn’t really enjoy reading newspapers at all, a new justification was offered. We were told that in this busy era, nobody had the time to read newspapers. They only looked at page one. So, we were encouraged to put as many stories as we could on the front page till it looked less like page one of a newspaper and more like a bulletin board.
When you consider how newspaper managers and marketing departments kept telling us that page one was the only thing that people read in our papers, I am surprised that more journos did not make the point that, if this was indeed the case, then page one should be sacrosanct.
Because even as sales departments and marketing departments were lecturing us on the importance of page one, they were also busy selling bizarre ad position on that same page. Every editor has his own horror stories of dealing with space sellers who tell him that they have sold a zig-zag space all across page one to a toothpaste company or that they have hawked two-thirds of page one to the manufacturers of a new car.
As these were the same people who told us that page one was the only thing anybody read, they had no business selling off real estate on page one.
Most editors I know fought huge battles against intrusive advertising. In my day, the space-sellers would go in to see Arun Roy Chowdhari, who was editor of the Delhi edition of the HT and show him some entirely bizarre ad that they wanted carried on top of page one. Arun would refuse. The space sellers would tell him that it was an ‘innovation’ they had borrowed from the Times of India. Arun would throw them out of his office. They would retreat, muttering about the ‘negative attitude’ of editorial.
At the HT, we were luckier than most because though the pressure of advertising was enormous, Shobhana Bhartia’s heart was in editorial. But I sensed that it was only a matter of time before page one became an ad page.
The economic crisis proved me right. Most successful media houses expanded wildly during the good times. Then, as the economy tanked, they found that they no longer had revenues to prop up their loss-making ventures. So, they went back to their successful products, the geese that laid the golden eggs, and tried to extract more revenues from them.
Page one was the first casualty. By then, editors had learnt to contend with so many budget cuts and had to fight calls for the sacking of employees, that they were no longer in a position to resist the space-sellers. We were told that the paper was so far behind its revenue targets that there was no option but to keep selling page one to advertisers. This was true of most major Indian newspapers.
These days, you’re lucky to get a clean page one. On many days, the paper comes with what the ad trade calls a ‘jacket’: a bogus page one that comprises an ad. Most irritating of all are the days when the ad is on a half sheet of paper so you can’t even hold the newspaper properly. Apparently, advertisers are foolish enough to believe that if readers curse them when they find that they can’t hold up their papers, this will lead to an improvement in their sales.
And yet, as appalled as most of us journos are by the demands of the ad department, at some strange level we are less concerned than we used to be. Deep down inside we know that page one is not as important as it used to be. In this multi-media era, most of our readers already know the main news of the day by the time they get to our papers. There is very little on page one that will surprise them.
Instead, they judge papers by other things: by the quality of the reporting on the inside pages; the editorial page; the feature supplements; etc. I doubt if the marketers were ever right when they told us that the only thing people read was page one. And I’m pretty sure that page one counts for less and less these days.
So, say goodbye to the front page. It was pushed into obsolescence by the expansion of other media. And it was murdered by the recession.