the dilemma of the front page


The Newseum, that stunning monument to the investment priorities of the leaders of traditional news media, features on its front facade the front pages of newspapers.

The front page of a print newspaper is commonly considered to be important news: “front-page news.”  But news that’s important to you depends on you. Why take seriously what some group of persons whom you haven’t selected and who know nothing specific about you proclaim is important to you?[*]

Knowing what others are reading is important to you.  But many persons get information from the Internet, which has millions of dynamic front pages.  Looking around your social network on Facebook, looking at most read and most emailed article lists on a content site,  and checking search keyword trends and Twitter trends provides much better information about what relevant others are reading than does looking at articles on the front page of a print publication.

Vanity Fair’s recent double-cover issue featured a cover photo of Michael Jackson and a cover photo of Farrah Fawcett.  The text on both covers is exactly the same, but the text layout and font sizes are re-arranged in accordance with the photo featured. Both versions of this issue were side-by-side in the magazine rack at a supermarket where I shop.  So shoppers could choose the magazine with the cover that they preferred.

But offered in this way, the front cover loses value.  How important can it be that Michael is on the front cover if you choose him to be there? What’s the public significance of Farrah being on the front page of your magazine if Michael is on the front page of the other gal’s mag?

The space of public engagement is no longer a sphere but a huge, messy garden.

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[*] The front pages of different newspapers are not necessarily independent evaluations of what’s important.  Since the early 1990s, the New York Times and the Washington Post have been exchanging front page previews the night before publication. The Washington Times’ front page appears to be designed to contrast with that of the Washington Post.  Having enlarged front pages of newspapers displayed across the facade of the Newseum is a claim to public importance that contasts sharply with the usefulness of services such as Google News.  The newspaper history represented within the Newseum similarly contrasts sharply with objective newspaper history and historically representative newspaper content.


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