The Quiet Revolution on Page One

By Mike Feinsilber

You may not have noticed, but what appears on the front pages of big city newspapers has undergone a fundamental change in the last 20 years. Below I’ve summarized most of the page one stories of the Washington Post and the New York Times over three days in March—Sunday, March 17 through Tuesday, March 19. See if you can deduce what the big change is.

The Post of Sunday, March 17:
*The county executive of Prince George’s County, Maryland, wants to take over the county’s struggling school system.
*Senator Robert Menendez, D-NJ, whose relationship with a wealthy patron has put him under the scrutiny of a grand jury, always seemed to stand apart from colleagues in the Senate.
*Hungry people in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, can barely wait for the first of the month, with its new supply of what once were called food stamps.
*In Ireland, genetic research in pursuit of a potato that does not develop potato blight is controversial.
*Injured NFL players don’t get the same care from the medical profession that non-players with similar injuries would get.

The Times of Sunday, March 17:
*Most high-achieving low-income high school students rarely apply to the nation’s best colleges.
*The construction of Jewish settlements in Arab East Jerusalem is likely to make an accord between Israel and its neighbors over Jerusalem’s future ever more evasive.
*Despite the pleas of families of the slain, the Justice Department is often reluctant to re-open investigations into civil rights killings that have grown cold.
*In July, to thwart counterfeiters, New York State will start issuing black-and-white drivers’ licenses that are virtually impossible to forge.
*Cossacks, the fierce horsemen who once secured Russia’s borders, are reappearing all over Russia, a sign of the revival of Russian nationalism.

The Post of Monday, March 18:
*Sanctions are hurting Iranians but not yet resulting in the unrest that could force leaders to change their nuclear policies.
*His early actions suggest that the new pope intends to reform a dysfunctional Vatican.
*Despite initial success in closing the U.S. border with Mexico, sequestration’s cuts in funds—along with new tactics by smugglers—raise fear of a surge in smuggling of drugs and humans.
*Just like their fellow citizens, some Supreme Court justices are unwed or divorced or childless or widowed.
*In a trip of “remedial diplomacy,” President Obama will seek in his visit to Israel to overcome first-term miscalculations.

The Times of  Monday, March 18:
*In only a handful of states do protective orders make violence-prone spouses or former spouses give up their guns.
*Officials in the West and in Africa fear that African soldiers who will take over the fight against militants in Mali lack the training or equipment to do the job.
*The new pope, Francis, must cope with his own entanglements with the Dirty War in Argentina that led to the killing or disappearance of 30,000 people between 1976 and 1983.
*Tax credits and federal grants often have the same effect—government support for private enterprises—but one is treated as a government expenditure and one isn’t, so the difference is huge in congressional effort to curtail deficits by cutting spending.
*A plan to let private companies tear down public libraries and then rebuild them on the ground floor of buildings whose other floors would serve commercial purposes is one way to replace worn out libraries in New York at no cost to taxpayers.

The Post of Tuesday, March 19:
*Ten years after the war’s start, today’s Iraq is neither a failed state nor a model democracy but some of both.
*A 16 year old Loudoun County, Virginia, youth sneaked out of his home, and, after a drinking session, climbed into a similar-looking house, only to be fatally shot by the homeowner. Here’s how this tragic event unfolded.
*As archbishop, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now the pope, kept his distance from victims of sexual abuse in Argentina.

The Times of Tuesday, March 19:
*Generic drugs have driven down the nation’s spending on prescription drugs but that may change soon.
*When it comes to same-sex marriage, some government officials no longer obediently enforce a law they disagree with.
*It’s going to be hard for an uncommonly humble Pope Francis to curb the power of the Vatican’s bureaucracy.So what characterizes all these stories?


It used to be that news could be defined as “an account of something important that happened yesterday.” With the emphasis on yesterday. But all but two of the stories that appeared on the front page of the Post and the Times do not report on something that had just happened. Instead, they could be called “situationers”—stories about a situation that happened over a period of time.

These front page stories have redefined news. And liberated newspapers. And readers. Who, what, when, where, why, how are no longer adequate. Now news has to answer new questions: In what context? How did this situation arise and how is it likely to evolve? Who are the key players? What shaped them? What was it like?

In the old days, newsroom cynics used to say, only half jokingly, “If it’s news, it’s news to us.”  That’s been replaced by: “If it’s news to us, it’s news.” Now it matters less who had the story first. Now small developments are less important. Leave them to blogs and broadcasters: we want our scoops to be as much about what it means as what happened.

Along the way newspapers have made some other welcome changes. If the other guy had the story first, they acknowledge that and they don’t bury the acknowledgement. It used to be that if the competition had a story you didn’t, your first temptation was to ignore it. If you couldn‘t, your second temptation was to play it down and play it inside the paper.

A bigger change is this: We’ve recognized that it ain’t enough to be accurate, balanced, complete. A new element: we have to be interesting, too. The revolution that has redefined what news is has redefined how it is told. We’re no longer straight-jacketed by the inverted pyramid and its reader-unfriendly way of telling the news—the way that forced the reader to uninvert the words to make them make sense. Here are the consequences of the decision to be interesting:

*The lead on the Post’s story (by Eli Saslow) about the people of Woonsocket waiting for the new month and its release from hunger: “The economy of Woonsocket was about to stir to life. Delivery trucks were moving down river roads, and stores were extending their hours.”

*The Times’ story (by Jodi Rudoren) on the complications planted by new Jewish settlements in Arab East Jerusalem: “The Muslim call to prayer resounds through the traffic circle in the Palestinian enclave of Ras al-Amud, through the taxi stand where waiting drivers sip sweet coffee and the vegetable market where boys help their fathers after school.”

*The Post’s story (by Sally Jenkins and Rick Maese) on the medics who look the other way when players are roughed up on professional football fields: “When Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III gimped onto FedEx Field in the fourth quarter of a January playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, he was under the gaze of no fewer than six physicians and assorted medical personnel.”

Let the record show: Not everyone welcomes the slide away from the pyramid. Here’s a letter to the Post from an impatient reader:

“The Post should leave out its creative writing and just deliver the news. It is agonizing to hunt for the who, what, when, where and why. I hope The Post empathizes and will stop reporting the news as though someone is writing the Great American Novel. Please.”


  1. Bob Cullen says

    Good read and thought-provoking. It’s refreshing to read commentary by an old hand who sees some things in the modern media that have gotten better since our salad days.

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