Thursday, April 19, 2007

News coverage: The 9/11 effect

I work at a small daily newspaper, one that enjoys high market penetration and little competition. We're not the only local news source, but we're pretty damn close. Our attitude is: If it is local, it's us. If it's not, we're not going to do a whole lot of worrying about it.

Thus, our front pages this week have had some, but not a lot, on the Virginia Tech shooting. We had front-page wire stories Monday and Tuesday and a local story today (I don't anticipate more). I think that's about appropriate. I am in the minority.

A quick scan today of front pages at the Newseum shows a lot of above-the-fold and centerpiece treatments for the shooter-manifesto story. I find it hard to believe that the Contra Costa Times (Torrance, Calif.), the Pensacola News Journal (duh, Florida), West Hawaii Today (Kailua Kona, Hawaii), etcetera, can really claim this is a local story, but they act like it is anyway.

I think this is a 9/11 effect, in more than one regard. 9/11 was for most papers a true local story, not just through tenuous local connections to the "national tragedy," but because the significant changes to daily life were - and continue to be - everywhere. The response from newspapers was to behave pretty much like TV: All 9/11 all the time. For a long spell, that made sense. Not a lot was going on, news-wise, that wasn't related to the attacks, the subsequent war, the onslaught of legislation and quieter rule changes.

Like everyone else in this business, what I learned from 9/11 was how much a news staff can do in a time of crisis. A hell of a lot, as it turns out. At some newspapers, this has become a problem, similar to what faces a nation that has a standing army in peacetime. You've got this kickass gun, so now you need a place to shoot it.

9/11 also liberated designers and editors from a perceived restriction on using the whole front page for big news. When I walked into the afternoon planning meeting that day (a few minutes late; I went swimming before work) at my former employer's paper, I found editors talking about how many stories should be above the fold. "Zero," I said, "just a headline and a photo." After a lengthy debate, I won, and we used the whole page for a big headline (Terror, in all caps about three inches high), a big photo (horizontal, full width of the page) and three blurbs with smaller photos referring people to the stories we had inside the paper. We still ran the god damned lottery results and other useless shit at the bottom of the page, but on all the important points, I got my way. Which was great then, but contributed to today's problem.

Today's problem is that every time something big happens (a tsunami, a hurricane, a dead pope, a new pope), the 9/11 treatment gets rolled out, even at small daily papers that can't make a credible claim to be national news outlets. I'm not saying the stories shouldn't be covered, but that coverage should not overshadow legitimately important local news except in the most unusual of circumstances. Since 9/11, I'd say those circumstances haven't happened.

I back my claim by pointing again to the the Newseum's front-page gallery archive. Since 9/11, the entries are:
  • Space shuttle Columbia burns up
  • The war in Iraq
  • Terrorism in Madrid
  • Ronald Reagan dies
  • Red Sox win the World Series
  • Tsunami hits South Asia
  • Pope dies; new pope chosen
  • Deep Throat revealed
  • Space shuttle Discovery lifts off
  • Hurricane Katrina
  • Rosa Parks dies
  • Democrats take House
  • Ford dies; Hussein killed
  • Virginia Tech shooting
If you're looking for something that matches 9/11 in scale, I think you're down to the tsunami and the war.

But no matter the scale, the tsunami wasn't local, just like the genocide in Rwanda wasn't local. People cared, but only for a little while. 9/11 wasn't like that (of course, I lived near Boston then, so my perspective may be skewed).

And the war? Well, it's not like that came as a big surprise. If you look at the front pages related to the war, it's hard to find a Holy Cow News Day in the lot.

It seems to me that the upshot of the 9/11-ification of papers' coverage of major news is a dumbing down of the industry, maybe not the level of television news, but in that general direction. At least for papers that stick to the tired old model of trying to provide all things to all the people...


Johnny Yen said...

The direction the news industry is taking is grist for many discussions.

My wife works in the advertising industry. The internet and changes in the radio industry have affected her industry. Her ex-husband works for one of the two big papers here in Chicago, and she's afraid he'll eventually lose his job (and the source of child support).

MWR said...

There are days when the non-local story will be the only thing people care about. In the case of some such stories, it would seem disrespectful (and thus unwise from a marketing point of view) to devote a normal amount of space to the library bonds or whatever.

I'm not convinced your readers would not welcome more and better coverage of non-local stories. Surely there is an unserved population somewhere there between those who only want local news and those who want non-local news so badly that they will shell out $500 a year for the New York Times.