By Ian MacFarland, December 2013.
Overview. A weekly neighborhood newspaper in New York City now covers the entire borough of Queens. Rather than publish a single weekly edition for this highly diverse area of more than 2 million people, its owners have opted to produce 14 separate editions, each centered on a different neighborhood. All editions share a deadline, delivery schedule, and staff pool, but each has unique content tailored to its target readers.
What is being organized? The newspaper’s resources—its content—consist mainly of articles and photos generated by staff and freelance contributors throughout the week. Often, newspapers will assign their reporters to beats based on subject matter (politics, education, “cops and courts,” etc.), making them domain experts who cover stories on that beat throughout a wide geographical area. However, because of this paper’s historical orientation toward “hyper-local” neighborhood news, it has given each of its seven full-time reporters a more granular geographical beat that corresponds to two of the 14 editions’ coverage areas, within which they are responsible for general assignment reporting. Most reporters also have a specialty for covering news that is of more general interest throughout the borough, such as citywide government or transportation issues, and they will include coverage of these domains in their story budgets for the week as well. The staff maintains a centralized story list that includes a handful of resource descriptions for each story: its slug (an abbreviated, descriptive name, including tags for its relevant neighborhoods), its length, and whether it has “art.”
Why is it being organized? The media market in New York is crowded and extremely competitive, and this newspaper believes its competitive edge lies in its laser-focus on individual neighborhoods. Furthermore, most of its readers are subscribers who receive the paper in the mail, not newsstand buyers. As a result, the paper generally eschews the familiar tabloid approach of splashing the most salacious story of the week across the front page and usually fronts two stories that are “small-bore” but extremely relevant to the neighborhood, such as the doings of local school or government officials, notable crimes, or human-interest stories featuring neighborhood residents. The deeper into the paper one goes, the less local its content becomes, and stories often appear in more than one edition, in different locations and even with different headlines, to tailor them to an appropriate level of localization.
On a more general level, of course, the paper must support the conventional interactions all readers expect from newspapers. Readers are rarely expected to progress through the paper from front to back, so it supports a wide variety of reading styles; large headlines and photos and concise, compelling story “ledes” (opening paragraphs) facilitate skimming and scanning interactions, and dividing the paper into sections, such as “Opinion,” “Sports,” and “Arts & Entertainment,” lets readers skip directly to their areas of interest after turning past page one.
How much is it being organized? The level of organization behind the scenes at this small, local newspaper is surprisingly complex. The primary organizing principle that determines a story’s placement is its relevance, which is a function of location granularity (does it directly affect the people of this neighborhood? Did it happen here?), significance (will readers find it important?), and time (is it old news? Has anyone else reported it yet?). Counterbalancing that is the economic reality of the struggling newspaper industry, which results in often severely limited space for the news (because paper and press time are costly physical constraints) and manpower with which to produce all 14 editions before deadline. The result is a hierarchical system in which the 14 editions are categorized into three zones; in each zone, about two-thirds of the pages are common to all editions, and the remaining third (including, most crucially, pages one through three) are unique to each single edition. Thus, for instance, a general-interest story about transportation need not be laid out 14 separate times, but one about a fatal car accident can appear on page one for the neighborhoods where it occurred and where the victims were from, and further back (or not at all) for other neighborhoods.
When is it being organized? In a weekly news cycle, selection, creation, and organizing of editorial resources is largely concurrent. The story list is updated on a rolling basis throughout the week, and an article or photo’s placement in the paper is often planned based on its intended subject matter well in advance of when the resource is actually created. However, organizing must be completed long before it reaches its intended users, because the final layouts must be printed, collated, and mailed to readers, which, due to logistical concerns, takes several days—so the paper is laid out on Tuesday (as late as possible to maximize the window for ad sales), printed on Wednesday, and delivered by the Postal Service on Thursday or Friday.
How or by whom is it being organized? Human agents—specifically, editors—are the newspaper’s primary organizers. They rely heavily on the judgment of the reporters, who are most familiar with their beats, to determine a story’s relevance and placement for each edition, as well as their own news judgment, assessment of the story’s quality, and estimation of where the story will physically fit based on ad placements (which are decided first). The implementation of their organizing system is carried out by page layout designers, with some software automation on the part of the paper’s content management system.
Other considerations. Part of the grind of a weekly news cycle is that the effectivity of the paper’s resources is never guaranteed; when the next edition comes out, they all become yesterday’s news, and one never knows when new developments will render a story irrelevant or incorrect; in fact, because of the latency between layout and delivery, a story’s effectivity may even expire before its publication.