Wednesday, January 09, 2008

State of play

Staff cuts at the sheriff’s department and debate over a new toilet tax made the front page this morning at the Opelousas (LA) Daily World, but there was no mention of the New Hampshire primary.

The stories were different but the situation was the same at papers like the Dodge City (KS) Daily Globe, the Waynesboro (VA) News-Virginian, the Pierre (SD) Daily Journal, the Santa Clarita Valley (CA) Signal and the Pascagoula (MS) Press, each of which also carried no front-page mentions of the dramatic presidential primary.

While the cold-turkey approach to primary coverage was an exception in the industry, the wide range in which newspapers treated the story illustrates the struggle editors are having with finding their rightful place in the evolving media food chain.

Do you cover the election as though the reader presumably had no access to television, radio and the Internet? Do you assume readers got the news someplace else, skip the story and move on to other things? Or, do you do something in between?

While most newspapers followed tradition by giving their top page-one position to the election – many playing off the “comeback” angle – several publications subordinated the story to the middle or bottom of their covers. Some papers resorted to graphics referring readers to stories inside the paper – and the Gainesville (GA) Times summarized the outcome in a box score.

In general, big-city papers made more of the New Hampshire primary than papers serving medium and small markets. The papers that didn’t put the election on page one tend to serve small, relatively isolated markets where they obviously consider their mission to be the top source of local news (as discussed in the Comment below from the Dodge City Globe). In some cases, like that of the Christian Science Monitor, inflexible production windows made election coverage impossible.

While you can understand the decision of local publishers to minimize or forgo coverage of an event most readers saw on TV or the Internet, it is harder to explain why most metros – who have greater resources and electronic competition than papers in smaller markets – could not come up with more creative ways to cover and package a story whose outcome was widely known before they went to press.

The San Francisco Chronicle got a bit out of the box by teaming together three coincidental events – the primary, the mayor’s inauguration and the governor’s state of the state address – under a single banner saying, “What’s Next.” And the Boston Herald, reflecting on the poor showing of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, asked in fat, red letters, “Is It Over?”

In fairness, some advance preparations may have been scuttled because the New Hampshire vote didn’t pan out the way most pollsters and pundits expected. And papers were squeezed – especially in the East – by the length of time it took to confim the Democratic vote after the early results did not conform to expectations.

While I fully recognize these problems, most readers (and non-readers) won’t understand why their morning newspaper is printing essentially yesterday’s warmed-over news.

Given that nearly 11 long months of political coverage lie ahead, editors need to start getting under, behind and ahead of the story, so their product remains relevant to the busy audience they covet.

4 Comments:

Blogger Martin L. Cahn said...

Alan:

I'm the senior editor of a thrice-weekly community newspaper "one county over" from our state capital. County population is about 57,000, the county seat has a population of about 7,000.

For long before I arrived at this paper, the publishers chose to be what folks today call "hyper local." They dropped their AP affiliation and stuck to only reporting news that either takes place or directly affects people within the borders of the county.

Tuesday, I got the chance to conduct a very short, but exclusive interview with Republican presidential candidate Fred Dalton Thompson. That's going on our next edition's front page, of course.

Otherwise, except for the fanatical, we assume our readers do not want to read about a primary in New Hampshire. Indeed, we will likely keep coverage of our own state's primary to a minimum, only reporting on local returns and turnout.

We have no desire to compete, on that level, with our daily competition and TV stations in the state capitol and the national media. It's not worth it -- primarily (if you'll pardon the pun) because there's already so much other news we can be reporting that matters more to the community we serve.

1:32 PM  
Anonymous Dave Mastio said...

Spinning the news forward or leaving out stories already well covered on the Internet, TV and radio gets exponentially more important as the size of newspaper readership shrinks.

The core readership is incredibly well-informed from multiple sources and if you want to keep them the stories have to give them something new.

So too with newspaper opinion sections. Waddling in with an editorial on the NH primary on Thursday (ahem, USA Today http://blogs.usatoday.com/oped/ )
guarantees your paper's editorial voice won't be heard. The bloggers, the TV bloviaters, the biggest papers have all already had their say. chances are a good chunk of readers will have had their fill and just skip it.

6:44 AM  
Anonymous Mark Vierthaler said...

I’m a reporter here at the Dodge City Daily Globe. Although I’m not an editor, I was reporting the night of the New Hampshire primaries. So, I’d be more than happy to give a little background on why we chose to not run the primary on the front page.

Dodge City is a town of about 30,000 people in the southwest corridor of Kansas. We publish six days a week (Monday through Saturday) and we have around 7,200 circulation. Because we tend to have a smaller audience, as with smaller papers, we have made attempts offer a “hyper-local” front page.

Although we still receive the Associated Press wire stories (we ran full-page coverage of the primary on page 5A that night), we try to dedicate the front page to local and regional stories that directly affect the readership.

In your blog, you write: “Do you assume readers got the news someplace else, skip the story and move on to other things? Or, do you do something in between?”

Essentially, that’s why we chose to run it on the inside. Most politically active members of our community tend to look towards the major national media outlets for coverage of national politics, especially on the primary level.

Our paper ran a centerpiece story about the Iowa caucuses, and the majority of the feedback consisted of: “Why not have something local out front? I buy your paper to know what’s happening in our city.”

That, in a nutshell, is what motivated us to play the primary on the inside while we aimed for a completely local and regional front.

11:25 AM  
Blogger Brian Cubbison said...

I'm glad you brought up this topic.

I once worked at a newspaper that got its AP photos by mail. The hyperlocal, not-the-news-that's-been-out-all-day strategy is a drastic one for most newspapers and even readers to accept in their hearts. You have to have willpower.

Here's something to consider. What do readers who still get their news from paper want in a paper? The most traditional newspaper possible? Are they readers who have not spent all day in front of a screen? Even if they've seen the news, do they still expect a "real" newspaper to care about the things they care about,if they care about Iraq, or politics?

I'd enjoy seeing a newspaper really defining the role of the all-local, enterprise you can't find online, only works on paper, sit down and enjoy reading with your coffee newspaper.

9:04 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home