How to Read The New York Times
The purpose of this guide to reading the times is to save you time and help you complete your assignments. By reading strategically, you can acquire a lot of information about political events in a half hour or less per day.
1. You must acquire the newspaper. The retail price is now $1.00 per day, but you can subscribe for the entire semester for approximately half price. Please arrange to do so TODAY, using the forms handed out in class.
2. Peruse the day's top stories. Look at (a) the top half of the first page ("top of the fold," the part that shows on newsstands and is intended to sell the paper), and (b) the news summary on page two.
Remember that selection, placement, and writing of news is a function of editorial choice. Newspapers come to acquire reputations as liberal, conservative, sensational, etc., depending in part on these editorial choices.
The top of the fold in the NYT will normally carry five or six stories and a picture or two. What is making the news today? Who is making the news? You are likely to find a heavy emphasis on political news in the Times, and a view of politics that emphasizes the role of leaders in making political choices.
The news summary on page two consists of one or two-sentence recaps of the major stories. This will be particularly useful in helping you to keep track of issues selected for class attention. These stories are found throughout the paper. Some stories you think are important may not be summarized on page two.
Often you will find something that attracts your attention-- go ahead and read it, if you have time, and get back to class assignments later. Just make sure you also do the class assignments.
3. Begin to analyze the stories you select for class attention. Normally stories will begin with two or three paragraphs that summarize events and introduce the central issue or dispute. These paragraphs should quickly tell you what happened-- what happened, who did it, and what difference it makes.
Finish those stories that you know are important , based on course assignments. But you should know that very few people read the entire newspaper. Reading strategically helps you to isolate the information that matters to you. The first sentence of each paragraph gives you a clue as to whether you should read the rest of the paragraph. For example, a story about the constitutionality of spending authority may include several paragraphs discussing amounts of money. You probably don't care about whether California is fudging with $58 million or $158 million, so skip to the paragraphs that discuss the politics of the dispute, the consequences of the events, and the likely course of the issue.
How much of the story is presentation of fact, and how much is analysis? Mark the important facts in the story and identify the main points of analysis in the story.
Do this for each of the stories that are part of your course work. Do note that the NYT typically has several sections, and that arts, business or sports may include political issues.
4. As you read through the stories, make a decision about whether you need to take a note or two or clip the story with important items marked. If you are covering a story over the entire term you should not expect to store all the relevant details in your head. Notes are better than clipped articles because you don't have to read the stories again-- you can refer to your earlier writings and perhaps paste them directly into your paper drafts. You may also be surprised with how LARGE a pile of newspaper clippings can get over a semester.
Keep a filing system. A week's worth of clippings will make for a messy desk or dresser top, and a semester's worth is really good only for recycling or starting fires. (In a health class during high school, we watched a film called “Emergency Child Birth.” A couple of class members passed out during the film. Their heads made a loud noise when they hit the desk. In the film the narrator said that if no clean sheets or blankets are available, an unread newspaper makes for a fairly clean bed.) Waiting to read the NYT will make for a huge block of time needed to get through them, and the same rule applies to a backlog of notes and clippings. If the class decides that the national election, Russia's new government, and environmental issues in Congress are stories worth following, you should have file folders on each subject for saving your daily clippings.
At the end of each week you can write yourself a note or two outlining the major changes or developments in the most active files.
Your filing system will also keep you up to speed for assignments for short papers on an issue or prepare for announced quizzes.
5. Apply the same technique for strategic reading to the editorial pages, usually the last two inside pages of the first section. What have the editors selected for attention? Do their selections and positions have something to do with today's or recent stories? Is there an apparent connection between the position in the editorial and the way the story was presented?
At this point you are finished with your daily assigned reading in the NYT. Look at your fingers. They should be dirty-- or else you didn't do a thorough job. This ink does not really dry, so it will transfer to skin, desk tops and clothes-- you may want to wash now. You are also ready for the entertainment and other fun parts of the paper-- reviews of books, movies and plays, the crossword puzzle (a prize for the fastest documented correct solution during the term), box scores, the prices of your stocks and bonds, and so on. Before you get to the fun stuff, the strategic reading of the NYT will take you a minimum of twenty minutes, and probably closer to forty minutes when you are first starting out. If you like to read the stories more fully, give yourself an hour. You will need to set aside the time to do this.
This guide is adapted from a handout to an American Government course taught in the mid-1970's at the Pennsylvania State University by James Eisenstein, originally written by then-graduate assistant Beverly Cigler.