What makes front-page news?

In the summer between the sixth- and seventh-grade, the phrase “Watergate” was everywhere. I have vague memories of somber adults watching a speech broadcast on television, but I have a far clearer memory of the front page of The Atlanta Constitution on Aug. 9, 1974. In a photo taken moments after the speech, Nixon is hugging his daughter, Julie Nixon Eisenhower. The photo wasn’t really much, but the words on the page were large and dark: Nixon Resigns.

That front page is still folded in a box in my basement. It was the first newspaper I saved. At that age, I was far more interested in horses than national government. I did not know Woodward or Bernstein. But somehow I knew the gravity of history was caught in that newsprint. It was the first front page that I recognized as a guide to something important happening in the world outside my bedroom.

That is what the front page still does every day — provide a guide to the most important news. And I’m pretty proud that I’m now the editor of the front page of that very paper; which was later combined with the afternoon Journal to become The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The first page of the newspaper — A1 — has always been the place where the best stories of the day are displayed. A1 brings readers the weightiest news and the strongest stories that have the most impact on the most people. A1 carries the features and projects we have invested our greatest effort in and are proudest of.

Some A1 stories are less hard-hitting, but still resonate with readers — that is, they cover topics or emotions we can all relate to even if we’re not directly impacted. Property tax hikes or school troubles in a county where you don’t live can help inform you as you watch your own local government. During the height of the recession, our front page offered stories on people struggling to find a job or hold onto their homes. Even if you weren’t in that position, maybe you recognized their fears and that story brought you closer to your neighbors. When University of Georgia Bulldog Todd Gurley was suspended, our A1 story wasn’t just about the team’s loss of one player, but the larger conversation that sprang up about paying college athletes.

We work to be sure A1 stories are written with deeper context and broader appeal than stories that you may see on the Metro, Living or Sports covers. Complexities beneath the surface and the emotions behind government action make a story a candidate for the front page. “What makes that story A1?” is a question and a challenge to our staff.

Once a week we have a planning meeting to identify what we’ll write in the coming days that should be considered for A1. Each day, we have two newsroom meetings to review stories we’re chasing and what we expect to write. We may put more than one writer on a story to be sure we can gather as much information as possible to reflect all sides of an issue. We assign photos to help you connect a face with the news; or maps or graphics to help you understand thorny topics.

The digital revolution has shaken newspapers to the core — and transformed us in wonderful ways. Most stories that are planned for A1 will also have a digital plan too. We decide when to post it on our websites, how much to post and look for material we can offer exclusively on our subscriber website, MyAJC.com That includes things too large to reproduce in print, such as databases, transcripts or email collections. It also includes extras like video, photo galleries and interactive maps that provide supplemental information or background for our web readers. You’ll usually see a note in print that will let you know when there’s more to explore on our website.

Like other U.S. papers, we hustle to figure out where our readers are going next. Will you find stories on AJC.com, our free website, or the subscriber-only MyAJC.com? Maybe the stories will come to you on Twitter or Facebook or even in your email inbox. If you want that newspaper feel without the newsprint, you can see an exact digital reproduction of our printed paper online. The AJCePaper is linked from our homepage and has found a strong audience there.

I’m convinced the new digital platforms don’t make the printed front page obsolete. Industry surveys of readers find they place a high value on the work newspapers do to select the most important news of the day. The front page of a newspaper helps you weed out the noise that comes with 24/7 coverage and presents the best four or five stories from that day.

Sometimes we’re stumped choosing between several stories, all of them important, but none towering above the others. One day last week we were faced with news of an ASO possible settlement, another story updating the work on the new Braves stadium and students being sent home from school because of Ebola fears. On a day like that, editors and reporters will huddle and talk through our material: What’s really new here? Why should the readers care? Have we talked to all sides involved to present a balanced report? The answers to those questions help us choose the stories.

When we are deliberating over our choices for A1, we have a managing editor who is fond of giving advice that ends with the equally liberating and sobering note: “Hey, it’s your front page!” We all laugh at that, because of course it’s not true. The front page doesn’t belong to any one person.

It belongs to the readers who plunk down their dollars to read it. We go to great trouble to learn what topics our print readers want and expect on their front page. From what you’ve told us, we know you want a mix of national and international news along with the most important local coverage and watchdog stories.

Certainly A1 also belongs to the reporters who struggle to uncover stories no one else has reported and to fully explore them, asking hard questions of sometimes hard people. We’re particularly proud of our team of watchdog reporters. They earn that nickname by nipping at the heels of ethically challenged elected officials or anyone who has something to hide. That kind of reporting isn’t cheap or quick and it’s in short supply today, despite the proliferation of websites and news outlets. Watchdog news stories frequently earn a place on our front page.

Newspapers, whether in print or digital form, will always be important. Despite the constant technology changes, the business of newspapering has changed little at its core since it began. I find it satisfying that I have a job that my 93-year-old mother understands perfectly. (Of course, she has been a 7-day-a-week subscriber to the AJC since the 1960s.)

And, if I’m lucky, in my tenure as A1 editor, I’ll get to assemble some front pages with some world-changing news that some other kid might read and gain a new appreciation for what newspapers and journalism can do. The keepsake yellowed clipping will be optional.

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