What is news?

The debate about “what is news” used to rage almost continuously in most newsrooms when I started getting involved in journalism in Montreal in the 1950s. I’ve seen reporters come to blows (okay, after a few beers) about the subject.

An old-timer, I think at CP (the Canadian Press wire service), once explained it to me this way:

News items are determined by the cost of getting the information, the relative importance of the information to the audience and the space available to communicate that information.

He then gave me this test, supposing I was the news editor of The Montreal Star. If you had room for only three of the following five stories, which would you select and how would you rate them in terms of news importance?

Ř      Ferry sinking off India, 728 people killed (no Canadians)

Ř      Air crash in Kenya, 316 killed (no Canadians)

Ř      Bus plunge in Chile, 86 killed (including one Torontonian)

Ř      Seattle orphanage fire, no deaths (have picture of terrified seven-year-old orphan girl crying in fireman’s arms)

Ř      Three Francophone Montrealers killed in east-end car crash; alcohol suspected (have picture of empty car crunched up against tree)

How would you “play” them and the picture(s) in the Star? How would you play them if you were the editor of The Toronto Star, The Calgary Herald, The Santiago Times in Chile, The Kenya Times or The Mumbai Mirror in India?

What would be your news play, Mr./Ms. News Editor, and how would you explain your decisions when second-guessing started, as is usually the case?

FYI: The Associated Press reported the following on May 16, 2006:

LONDON (AP) — Rock star Bono, who has long complained that Africa’s problems get little attention in the news, guest edited Tuesday’s edition of The Independent newspaper, filling its pages with stories on AIDS, poverty and global warming.

The newspaper’s front page featured a headline saying, “No News Today,” with the footnote: “Just 6,500 Africans died today as a result of a preventable, treatable disease (HIV/AIDS).”

Most working news editors will tell you that making news decision based solely, or mostly, on your personal likes and dislikes is a mistake. You will find that circulation/viewership will begin to decline down to the relatively few readers/viewers who agree with your point of view.

The internet is, however, changing the what-is-news equation. A web site can appeal to one person, its author, or to a million. Space (in the traditional sense) and time have been eliminated as factors.


An IABC public relations person, I know, would play it this way in Montreal:

1)     Montreal crash with picture (local interest)

2)     Ferry sinking (human interest)

3)     Orphan crying picture (if it bleeds, it sort of leads)

Bus plunge and Torontonian’s death of no Montreal interest. Ditto for Kenya crash.