Monday, November 12, 2007

Monday forum: Editors and news

Two examples stand out this week from Romenesko's Monday roundup of ombud/reader-rep columns. Both are the sort that hit my we're-circling-the-drain-and-picking-up-speed button, though I expect some people disagree (probably the ones who think my crowd are the ones sending the profession into irrelevance, but ... to each his own).

Anyway, I'm interested in y'all's thoughts about the future and present of "news," as outlined here. So pls chime in.

First up, Ted Diadun of the Plain Dealer:

Page One's new look designed to reflect people's lives
... Page One of this newspaper has changed dramatically over the past few months. You have noticed and have asked questions: Why has national and international news been taking a back seat? And why has Page One become so "featurey"?

This column has addressed specific front-page decisions several times recently, but perhaps it's time to take a more overall look at what has been happening to Page One and why.

The mission each day is to give you stories, photos and information on Page One and throughout the newspaper that you can't get anywhere else but in The Plain Dealer.

That's always been the mission, really, but things have, uh, changed. If something happens in Afghanistan or Alabama, the chances are that cable TV, e-mail and the Internet will tell you all about it before we can. ...

But if something occurs in a courtroom, in a boardroom or on a ballfield in Cleveland, your first and best shot is The Plain Dealer. So those are the things that make the front page of this newspaper, almost without exception.

(Right, and during the playoffs there was nothing but pro sports -- the prototype bird of "news you already know if you care" -- on the P-D front. But we digress.)

Last weekend, Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf suspended his country's constitution and cracked down on political opposition, and we heard from several readers who wanted to know how any self-respecting newspaper could not have had such important news on Page One.

A decade ago, the Pakistan stories would likely have been on Page One, continued to a story inside the A section that ran on for 40 inches. A year ago, the story might still have made Page One, albeit in a more concise form.

Today, sacrilegious as it seems to some, editors don't believe you buy The Plain Dealer to read about Pakistan.

So that Sunday's Page One was dominated by a thoughtful and readable story on the legacy of Carl Stokes, surrounded by stories about good news for the future of the Avon Lake Ford plant, and a feature about a firm that manufactures coffins and urns for Major League Baseball fans. And Monday's Page One told the tale of the Browns' overtime win, along with stories about problems in Ohio's school tutoring program and the competition between Cleveland-based insurance giant Progressive and aggressive marketer Geico.

Are any of those stories as important as an upheaval in Pakistan? Perhaps not, but readers could find the Musharraf stories in lots of places. The story about people who want to be buried in an Indians casket was only in The Plain Dealer - and, of course, on

(Watch the paper shift its feet now)

"I think the front page really needs to reflect the reality of people's lives, and people's lives are not just about events to worry about -- war, death and tragedy," said editor Susan Goldberg.

True but disingenuous. The argument was never "replace all the 1A fluff with Pakistan stories" or "life really is just war, death and tragedy"; it's about why the bar has moved to the point where major stories can't make a dent in the fluff. Sheez.

Over to the N&O, Ted Vaden comes out in the open with a weird defense of card-stacking:

Assessing bias in campaign coverage
I've heard a good bit recently from my friends toward the starboard tip of the political spectrum, alerting me to a new study of the media and the 2008 presidential campaign.

He's on for a bit about a Shorenstein Center study, the upshot of which seems to be that media coverage of Democrats is a lot more positive than media coverage of Republicans, but if you factor out Obama coverage (justifiable because "his challenge to Hillary Clinton was the buzz of the first half of this year") on the plus side and McCain coverage on the minus side, things sorta even out.

Which tap-dances around the elephant a bit: Why is it that only Obama's "challenge to Hillary" (there's a scary assumption in that bit of framing, if you're the sort that thinks the selection process is an important attribute of democracy) creates that sort of "buzz"? Do only Democrats buzz at the frequency reporters can hear? Is a "stronger narrative" really what ought to drive the supply of political information?

I was interested in how the coverage is playing out in The News & Observer, so I looked back at coverage in October. Using my own horseback (read: biased) judgment of positive versus negative, here's how the stories broke down for major candidates.

Sigh. Your own judgment might be biased, but there are ways to account for and control that. Wonder why we were complaining at the weekend about how nice it'd be if people insisted that j-education contain methods courses? But his point here isn't about the valence of coverage so much as its volume:

Those numbers overlap, i.e. Edwards, Clinton and Obama appeared in many of the same stories. Still, why were Democrats mentioned in twice as many stories (852) as Republicans (415)? Is that a bias on The N&O's part?

Yes. The bias is deliberate, to give as much coverage as possible to the campaign of John Edwards, who is the first serious presidential candidate from North Carolina since Terry Sanford in 1976, and as such deserves more attention from his state's newspapers. Much of the Edwards coverage has been negative, such as the UNC video flap and stories on $400 haircuts and his $6 million mansion.

This is the part -- even more than the idea that the race is defined by who's challenging Hillary -- that I find outright irresponsible, if not openly anti-democratic. This is not the race for Homecoming King. It's for the national chief executive. At this stage (for better or worse; I think it's way too early), our job isn't to remind people that John Edwards is from North Carolina. It's to help them get a firm grip on what their preferences are and figure out which candidate in the party of their choice best reflects those preferences. (Nor am I sure Liddy Dole doesn't qualify as having been a "serious" candidate, but again, she might not have been using the sort of frequency the N&O can hear). Leaving aside the folks who don't think they're getting enough data to make a choice about a Republican candidate, what if you're a Democrat whose views are better reflected ... oh, hell, we've said this before, but by non-lightweights on the international policy front?

The floor, as always, is open. Obviously I'd drive the newspaper industry into the ground if they let me near the wheel. Anybody have a six-pack and want to come along for the ride?


Blogger Brian Cubbison said...

I always enjoy your posts about framing the news. I find them valuable, even though I'm tempted to set up an RSS feed that mixes your posts with those of Steve Boriss at the Future of News. I don't think of either of you as partisans, but you come at the topic from such different spheres.

On reimagining the newspaper, I've noticed that reader reaction tends to come in three groups, whether it's Cleveland or San Jose:

One group still gets the news on paper because going online is unpleasant. and regrets that it's being taken away piece by piece.

One group gets everything online and is not going back to paper, and wonders why the Web site is so clumsy.

Another group is intensely political and wants Keith Olbermann on one side or Mark Steyn on the other.

Nobody ever seems to redesign a paper to make the comics easier to see, or the crossword easier to use.

Perhaps the really radical newspaper would be "the traditional newspaper for traditional readers" and "the local paper for people who don't go online and don't want to buy the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, too." But it would need to print a lot of health news so its readers would live as long as possible.

1:17 AM, November 13, 2007  
Blogger Andy Bechtel said...

Related post:

12:16 PM, November 13, 2007  
Blogger Denise said...

Fred, I have to disagree about the N&O Edwards coverage. Much like the P-D's argument, if you want info on a political candidate of any stripe, you can easily find it anywhere, in much more depth than dead trees can provide. However, N&O reporters have the sources, experience and insiders (we hope) to give us more in-depth coverage of Edwards than any other source can. (And I assume they're also trying to sell this coverage to other papers/wire services who need that depth.) It's not the newspaper's job to tell us every detail about every candidate, just as it's no longer its job to tell me the score of yesterday afternoon's football game. The mantra lately is "local, in depth," so I say go for it.

12:29 PM, November 13, 2007  
Blogger Strayhorn said...

I'll agree with Denise: covering the favorite son is an ancient and honorable endeavor. The only problem I had with the N&O's coverage of Edwards was with their sometimes star-struck tone (particularly around his announcement). That's in line with their general obeisance to the North Raleigh money crowd.

I think they'd profit with a good reading of their coverage of Terry Sanford, which I recall as being fair and thorough.

As for the re-imagining of newspapers, good coverage of local items will win the day. I listen to the BBC for the same reason: insight and patient story-building. And for God's sake get some quotes.

When I hear the word "features," though, I reach for a revolver. It always brings up visions of rose gardens and belles, and only belongs on the front by way of a Sunday foto.

12:55 PM, November 13, 2007  

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