The surest way to get your story on the front page is to be lucky enough to be on the scene of a story that will have to go on the front page: the school bus smashed by a train, the high official disgustingly drunk at a campaign appearance, the announcement at City Hall of the Shiny New Thing. After this category, other elements come into play.
The next surest route to the cover is the Project, and the longer you work on it, the surer your chances. A publication that has allowed you to spend six months pursuing a single story is going to put the result out front, even if reading it produces an effect similar to ingesting a Schedule 1 controlled substance.
You are more or less at the mercy of your editor’s skill at pitching your story at the daily news meetings, but it will help if you know what cant is current at those seances. It might be “sweep.” Does your story have more breadth or wider impact? If not, your editor will make a note, “Insert sweep,” and come back to you. “Real people” is always popular. Are there people in your story other than public officials, ordinary sorts with whom the reader will presumably identify? Best to round some up early on. And always there is “the mix.” Can’t have too many stories of similar tone, subject matter, location on the same page.
Time can work against you and for you. If your story is not chosen on the first or second day it’s offered, interest will flag as it takes its place in the Backlog. If it is mentioned at all, it will get the weary yes-we-know-about-that-one nod, and it may well wind up going inside and being cut to fit. But if it survives long enough on the Backlog, there will come a Monday (the day stories that weren’t compelling enough to make the Sunday paper are published) or, even better, a Thanksgiving weekend when the cupboard will be stripped to fill the paper, and there you’ll be in glory.
Having sat in on many conferences about Page One stories, I can offer some tips on gaming the system. Sweep and Real People and Telling Quotes are always good, but there are some tricks that will give you an advantage over your fellow reporters.
1. Write tight. No, not drunk. Don’t file 1,500 words when you can say it in 1,000.
2. Skip the throat-clearing. Establish in the first two or three sentences what to focus of the story is. Give the reader a reason to go forward.
3. Make a checklist of the things you know the Higher-Ups will flag. Do you, for example, have solid and multiple sources? Every opportunity you give them to raise questions will be a reason to keep you off the front.
4. Meet your damn deadline or, if possible, file early. You may mistakenly think that filing at the last possible moment will forestall tinkering with your work. Wrong. They’re going to tinker with it anyhow, so give it to them early enough that it will stick in their minds for the cover.
5. One other thing. Could you make it interesting?