Inside the New York Times: Is There Such a Thing as a Slow News Week?

From a Times Insider column by Megan DiTrolio headlined “Is There Such a Thing as a Slow News Week?”:

Ask any journalist: The news cycle is relentless, exhausting, ever-churning and wildly unpredictable. A bill gets caught up in the House; a world leader makes a blunder; a new variant of coronavirus grips the nation. In a normal week, any of those stories and more may battle for front-page treatment.

The news never really stops — but there are days when it doesn’t break quite as dramatically. And for those days, The New York Times needs to plan accordingly: Even when there is little news that might seem worthy of the front page, The Times still needs to put out headlines. A reader might find the paper a bit thinner at the start of a week, during the middle of the summer and perhaps during what typically is the slowest news week of them all: the days between Christmas and New Year’s Day.

As part of her duties as a senior editor, Alison Mitchell is instrumental in selecting the articles that will get prime positioning on The Times’s home page and the print front page. She says that the holiday week is always challenging, but planning early and trying not to panic too much are two methods she has relied on since taking on her role in 2017.

Editors meet every weekday morning at 9:00 to pitch their stories, but Ms. Mitchell has a sense of the top contenders well before then. “I’m swimming in the news day and night,” she said.

After that, the print planning team gets to work. Well, they’ve already been at work: Josh Crutchmer, the print planning editor at The Times, leads a team of five that plots out a day’s, a week’s and sometimes, even a month’s worth of print coverage. He also communicates with The Times’s home page and digital teams.

“I joke with people who don’t know what my job is that my job is to know everything,” he said.

Mr. Crutchmer begins preparing for the holiday season in October, planning what will go where, and when, and adapting quickly when the plans change. In mid-December, Ms. Mitchell will hold a selection of stories that don’t have to run immediately and can be used in the last weeks of the year. Neither holds anything that is competitive in the news cycle; and they work closely with the desks producing the stories, like International and Business, in making decisions.

Though there are exceptions — like last year, when much of late December was spent certifying the presidential election results — the week between Christmas and New Year’s, they said, is usually quiet and thus requires this prep work.

There are events that don’t care if most of the country is off from work and sitting by the fire: the present Omicron coronavirus surge, for example, which is leading to new health guidance and planning for schools, airlines and businesses…..

But the major institutions that The Times regularly covers — the White House, Congress, a major drug company — are usually shut down for the week. And even if those organizations are open, “nobody wants to make a big announcement in the middle of Christmas week,” Ms. Mitchell said. “So suddenly, all those engines of news stop.”

To cover the slow cycle, The Times schedules pieces of enterprise journalism, longer reads that don’t necessarily have a strong time peg, to run during that week. Though enterprise stories — often deep dives into large-scope topics — run year-round, they might not get enough real estate in the print paper on a busy news week.

The planning team always keeps a running list of enterprise stories on reserve….“It’s almost always the case that the best stories get held for that last 10 days of December, because that’s when we think they’ll be most visible,” Mr. Crutchmer said. The meatier stories serve as great choices for the week, as readers are often off from work and have more time to peruse the paper.

But enterprise stories are not always a safe bet. They can fall out of the lineup or hold for a variety of reasons — like if a reporter needs to do more fact-checking or add an additional source. That’s why Mr. Crutchmer always has several options on the bench.

And though breaking news might give the paper more options, editors don’t necessarily yearn for it on Christmas Day.

“I’ve worked many a Christmas, and I come in and I know, Oh God, let’s hope there’s no Christmas Day fire that burns down a block,” Ms. Mitchell said…..

Adriana Balsamo, a planning and design editor who focuses on the news section of the paper, doesn’t believe in slow news weeks (maybe slow hours, she says), but when a lighter week does roll around, she finds that the challenge is not so much filling the page, but limiting herself to just one or two of The Times’s many enterprise articles to feature.

The tricky part is mapping out what goes where; on a busy week, that is dictated by the news.

The first week of January, when institutions are only just starting back up and many enterprise stories have already run, hits like a wrecking ball. And then the churn begins again….

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