Understanding the Newspaper News Cycle

Newspaper printing.
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AFP / Getty images 

News cycles for daily and weekly newspapers have changed significantly since the proliferation of online news sites and decreases in circulation. News stories written and edited by print journalists often are posted electronically several hours before ink ever touches paper. Many once-daily newspapers also have reduced print schedules and no longer publish every day. Some even have become weekly or biweekly publications.

Historical Norms

Newspapers used to fall into one of three common categories: morning dailies, afternoon dailies, and weeklies. Press times for morning dailies often would be after midnight, allowing time for late-breaking stories and coverage of late sports events to make the morning paper. Afternoon dailies usually printed during the mid- to late-morning hours, allowing papers to hit newsstands by lunch and reach home-delivery subscribers before they got home from work. Print schedules for weekly papers varied by publication and depended on publication days.

These print schedules meant newsrooms for morning dailies generally were busiest during the afternoon and evening, while newsrooms at afternoon dailies were busiest in the early morning hours. Weekly publications followed schedules more similar to standard business hours, but whichever day of the week the paper was scheduled would be busiest.

Understanding these schedules always has been important to those who regularly interact with reporters, whether they be newsmakers themselves or public/media relations professionals seeking coverage. The worst time to try and get the attention of a reporter or editor is when they have a deadline looming. The best time to reach newsroom staff at dailies generally used to be late morning or early afternoon. That's when shifts begin for a lot of the newsroom staff at morning dailies, and it's also right after the press deadline has passed for many at afternoon dailies.

Planning and Budget Meetings

All newspapers do things differently depending on the sizes of their staffs and the specifics of their deadlines, but they generally hold a couple of planning meetings that are referred to in the news business as budget meetings. It's at these meetings where content is prioritized based on the available news hole, which is the space available after advertisements have been placed. A typical ratio for newspapers is 60% advertising and 40% news.

An early budget meeting typically is held when editors begin their shift for the next day's paper. For afternoon dailies, this first meeting will take place the night before the paper goes to press. A final budget meeting will be held a few hours before the press deadline when the copy desk and the design desk need to start putting together the front page.

Early budget meetings will focus on assigning coverage of stories, including photographs, graphics, and other art elements. Later budget meetings will finalize priorities based on any new developments throughout the day and on the quality of the content reporters and photographers were able to generate during the day.

Larger papers often will have separate budget meetings for each section. For example, the top editors will budget content for the front page, the sports desk will budget content for sports, arts and entertainment editors for their sections, and so forth.

Sunday Editions and Advance Pages

The front page, a metro section, and a sports section typically are the only parts of a paper that staff is working on up until deadline. Feature pages, opinion pages, and the bulk of larger Sunday editions often are working on content days or even weeks ahead of time. Enterprise reporting and investigative reporting sometimes lead to in-depth stories about issues or topics and will be played as dominant stories on Sunday front pages.

For this reason, budget meetings for feature sections and even for Sunday front pages often are planning for editions days or weeks ahead of time. Entertainment reporters, for example, are likely to know months ahead of time about scheduled concerts and will plan phone interviews with visiting artists a week or more before those artists arrive for a show. The actual preview story likely will be published a couple of days or so before the date of the show.

The Internet and Social Media

The dawn of the internet as a commercial enterprise meant consumers no longer had to wait for presses to run and papers to be delivered before they could read stories about the previous day's events. That threw a wrench into what had been a standard news cycle for a long time.

In the past, a story that broke in the early afternoon would get assigned as it happened, editors would decide what to do with it during that day's budget meetings, and the final version would be finished in time to go through the copy desk before getting placed on a page. However, that's no longer how it works.

If a story breaks at 1 p.m., the reporter likely has posted a quick summary—based on what she knows so far—and perhaps photos on social media before 1:30 p.m. This might all happen before the first budget meeting of the day.

A detailed story might hit the newspaper's website within an hour after it breaks, and that story likely will be updated multiple times throughout the day before the version that goes in print is completed. It's also not uncommon for such a story to be updated online before the print versions hit newsstands the following morning.

The roles of copy editors also have changed. While they still play a key role in revising and cleaning up copy for print, some news organizations don't require all updates and summaries that reporters post online or on social media to go through the copy desk before they are posted. This increases the timeliness of the news, but it also results in online stories being more fluid as they are updated, clarified, or corrected as needed.

Reduced Publication Schedules

Many newspapers have developed web-first philosophies that mean posting stories online is a higher priority than producing the print version of their product. Declines in both print advertising and print subscribers have further increased this trend. The end result is fewer newspapers publishing seven days per week and less emphasis on breaking news in print editions.

No singular model has become the most common. Of once-daily papers that have reduced print schedules, some have cut out only a day or two per week, while others now print no more than once or twice per week. How this impacts deadlines and planning is almost as varied as the number of publications in existence since they each have their own approach.

Another impact is the consolidation of press facilities. As fewer newspapers get printed, fewer press facilities are needed to print them. Companies that own multiple publications often operate only one press facility for each geographic region, resulting in different deadlines for each newspaper printed at such a facility. Travel time for delivery trucks to the communities where newspapers are distributed further impacts deadlines, meaning that publications that once didn't hit the press until after midnight now have to have all their copy finished by 6 p.m. or even earlier.

When to Contact Editors and Reporters

If part of your job involves pursuing news coverage for your business or organization or for clients, the best thing to do is to learn the specific news cycle for the publications you work with. If reporters at your hometown paper need to have their stories for the print edition to the copy desk by 7 p.m., you can be sure they will be busiest during those few hours leading up to that deadline. That means calling later in the day generally is a bad idea.

Try to call or e-mail in the morning whenever you can. If you're dealing with a weekly newspaper, ask about their deadline day and try to talk to them on different days. They'll appreciate it.

In general, the more effort you put into getting to know the reporters and editors you need to deal with, the more you'll learn about their schedules, when they are busiest, and when they have time to chat about potential news stories.