Monday, January 05, 2004


Those very important but somehow astonishingly dull trading scandals are back in the business pages of the Boston Herald tomorrow, but I’m more interested in looking at the story to illustrate, if only as an example for myself, the strange way news can be decided, even at major metropolitan dailies.

A dull part A local investment firm that’s looked extremely bad since the scandals broke has taken another step in its rehabilitation, “slapping a 2 percent redemption fee on early sales of mutual fund shares,” writes Hub blog’s Jay Fitzgerald. The story leads a page, but not the whole seven-page section that will go tomorrow to a quarter-million people. It’s on a right-hand page, which is where newspapers put stories they don’t want people to miss. It’s also about 10.25 inches long in pure text, or about 10 paragraphs, pretty respectable for a Herald story.

A more interesting part: The story consists of fairly positive analysis or fairly objective background until the last inch or so of copy, when an analyst is paraphrased as saying the fee “is more symbolic than substantive.”

In fact, the analyst says, “As I see it, it’s pretty pointless.”

This is, in my opinion, the most compelling line in the piece, and the one that the little guy -- the Herald’s readers -- should know more about. But because it’s also the last line in the article, there’s no analysis of whether this view is correct. The lack of contrary voices could mean the analysis is correct, but the placement indicates little attention should be paid. (Imagine how different the article would have been if the quote went in the fourth paragraph instead of at the end.)

Another dull part Layout of the Herald business section is done by order of editors on the basis of stories they’ve discussed with reporters but usually have yet to read. We copy editors lay out the section based on editors’ instructions and have almost never read the stories as we do so. The process is fairly mechanical, on ancient, inflexible computers. The average page includes three to six stories, starting with a big headline for the lead story and graduating to smaller, prescribed headline sizes as the stories recede in importance and placement. There’s always a need to make room or fill space to make the stories fit. If they take up a lot of space, copy editors can make photos smaller. If they don’t quite fill the page, copy editors can take up space by making giant quotes (‘pull quotes” or “popouts”) from stories, or by enlarging headlines.

This doesn’t always work well. Copy editors may find they’ve made space for a pull quote for an article that has no quotes. And since there’s often little time to go back and change a layout, it frequently comes down to desperation measures to make a story fit. Copy editors can take away or add space between the letters forming sentences and paragraphs. They can use parts of sentences instead of whole ones in the spaces made for pull quotes. And so on.

The dull part continues The headlines, too, are difficult to change after a story arrives, even though it can be tough to fit the best headline into the space given the most important story, because the headlines can be huge. (This means the least important stories sometimes have the best, most accurate headlines, because there’s so much more room.)

The scandal story tomorrow has the headline “Controversial trades face Putnam fee,” with Putnam Investments being the name of the company. There is no additional space or “subhead” to fit in the second element, even if it was desired, for something like “Analyst calls move ‘pointless.’ ”

Another more interesting part Although there was no subhead, the story does have space to pull out a quote from the story. This could be a place to fit in that compelling quote and give readers a sense that there is more at work here than the headline suggests.

But Herald quotes automatically come in at a six-line space. The quote “As I see it, it’s pretty pointless,” is far too short for the space. And there’s only one other quote in the story, from a second analyst quoted higher up that comes across as far more positive: “It’s a message from [Putnam] saying ‘We don’t want the market-timers.’ It’s a good thing they’re doing this.”

The big wrap-up And that’s what readers would have been seeing tomorrow: A story, prominently displayed, with a headline suggesting Putnam was taking a positive step and a large pull quote reinforcing that suggestion. At the very end of the story is someone saying Putnam’s step isn’t that positive.

But there wasn’t enough room for the standard six-line quote. It was a three-line quote -- still far too long for the three-line space, but possible to be stretched into it.

So instead of the positive package readers would have seen, after a positive headline comes a note of doubt: “As I see it, it’s pretty pointless.”

All thanks to a technical fluke.

Epilogue That’s the rather dull story of how a quarter-million people may come to see the Putnam story: by unstated, possibly conflicting agendas controlled in large part by a lack of time and computer flexibility.

It’s not even certain that the thought processes of the reporter or editor were thwarted from the promotion of a bottom-of-the-story quote to major display element. Copy editors almost always want to use the most interesting quote in a story for this purpose, because it compels consumers to read a story they might otherwise skip.

It would be nice to say that most newspapers are more thoughtful in presenting their content, but it’s not true. This is more or less standard operating procedure at a lot of U.S. media, primarily those short on time and staff.

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