- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 12, 2007

News that fits

Jokes were made when the New York Times reduced the width of its pages last week that, instead of “all the news that’s fit to print,” the distinguished daily would now be printing “all the news that fits.”

It’s a cute line, but in fact that has always been the case, at the New York Times, The Washington Times and elsewhere.

There are several constraints on the size of a paper. Newsprint is expensive and becoming more so all the time. And as a paper gets bigger — and heavier — it becomes harder and more expensive to deliver to subscribers.

Because of the need to configure the presses, the number of pages in each section has to be decided early in the day. Any change in that configuration adds to printing costs and can cause delays in getting the paper to subscribers’ homes the next morning.

As a result, the size of each section is generally decided on the basis of how much advertising has been sold, not how much news has occurred.

Most of the major daily newspapers have a front section averaging about 20 pages, which must be divided up among the national, foreign and opinion pages. Outside the Washington area, the metro section is there too.

At The Washington Times, we normally have a foreign “news hole” of about 2½ pages, depending on how much advertising has been sold.

One of those pages is the Briefing Page, which is always kept free of ads and is a self-contained package. The remaining page and a half can hold between five and seven stories, depending on the ad space and length of the stories.

Even then, we can’t be sure how many stories will fit into the paper because some of our articles will end up on Page 1 — a decision that is normally made at about 5:45 p.m. At that point, unless we have been lucky with our front page offerings, we have to kill one or two of the stories we had planned on using.

Holding stories

There is one alternative to killing stories that we like and in which we have invested reporting and editing time. That is to “hold” the story and use it the following day.

Most stories cannot be held. If we are reporting a terror attack or an earthquake or a press conference, the story is already out there in other news media and we would look foolish to report it a day after everyone else.

But a certain percentage of our articles are “enterprise” stories that, we hope, are exclusive to us. Many of these stories are based on trends or broad, long-term developments, and can run on one day or another.

The senior editors face similar constraints. For design reasons, we typically print seven stories on the front page, occasionally fewer but never more. But the editors often have eight or nine stories they would like to give front-page prominence.

In those cases, the desk editors are asked to hold back an enterprise story and re-offer it for the front page the following day.

We accept such requests with mixed feelings. Reporters and editors always like to see their stories on Page 1, and welcome a second chance to get them there. But we also live with the dread that even an enterprise story will appear in a competing publication before we get it into print.

That happened to us early last week. David Enders, an enterprising and courageous young freelance correspondent, had made his way to Basra and spent several days in the southern Iraqi city, submitting a well-reported story on the deteriorating security situation as British forces reduce their presence in the city.

The article was in my e-mail Monday morning, but I decided to hold it back in favor of another Iraq story that had already been around for a couple of days.

Imagine my frustration, then, when I looked at the lead headline on the front page of Tuesday’s Washington Post: “As British leave, Basra deteriorates.”

c David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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