Sunday, April 17, 2011

Strange editorial decisions by N.C. newspapers

There are plenty of reasons why newspapers are struggling to sell print editions these days. Many of those are out of the control of people trying to do the best job they can with depleted budgets and resources and crazy deadlines.

Sunday, a look at North Carolina newspapers shows another reason why some people don't bother to buy print editions. And this one is completely in the control of the people running newsrooms.

I remember thinking Saturday night how much adrenaline would be flowing for people working news desks at North Carolina newspapers. I was thinking how exciting it would be to help design bold, punchy layouts. I was wishing that I had a chance to write headlines that have an impact to give readers the treatment they deserve when you have deadly tornadoes blow through the state.

With the exception of the Fayetteville Observer (although the headline could have been better), the top front, and the Sanford Herald, right, most newspapers that have their fronts on the Newseum website were sadly disappointing.

If there ever was a newspaper that should scrap a planned front for splashy tornado coverage, it was the Raleigh News and Observer, below. Raleigh had fatalities and the storm certainly was historic.

The problem for the N&O: The first stories of a big series was planned to start Sunday. It's a series on the millions of dollars wasted unsuccessfully trying to fight water pollution in the state. The "Wasted Away" series includes two full pages inside in today's newspaper. I haven't had a chance to read it, but I'm sure it's good journalism.

I understand that it at least had to start on the front. But when a big story such as this breaks, you have to change your plan. The Wasted Away story needed to go across the bottom and the tornado story should have dominated the front.

What happened? They didn't let a major story change the original plan. Sadly, the tornado story went across the top of the front page with a headline not even close to befitting the tragedy of what happened.

It's terrible that the state is wasting money on ill-advised projects. But it's also terrible that people lost their lives and homes in Raleigh and the local newspaper didn't think enough of it to give it better play in the print edition.

You know it was the wrong call for the N&O's print edition when you go to its website this morning and see which story is getting better play. Obviously, it's the tornado coverage.

I've not seen reports of any fatalities in Guilford County or Forsyth County, but I also was quite surprised to see that the Greensboro News & Record, left, and the Winston-Salem Journal (just below the N&R front), didn't even put a tornado story on the front page Sunday. The N&R at least teased to the story. 

In the case of the N&R, it probably was because they spent hours crafting a nice design for big story on budgets. Yes, nice designs are good. But it is a NEWSpaper. Budgets are huge these days. For this day, the tornadoes are bigger. Look at its website this morning and you see that they realize this.

I remember years of looking at TV news and laughing at the mistakes they made and saying with pride that my newspaper wouldn't have made that sort of mistake.

I'm not laughing now. 

Newspaper print editions already are at a disadvantage because of deadlines. Why make it worse?

WRAL had coverage of the tornadoes from mid-afternoon until midnight. (I'm sure other stations had extensive coverage as well.) I believe the only commercial interruption during that time for WRAL was for the lottery number announcement that the station probably was contractually required to do.

Do you think it's possible that WRAL had some nice features reporters and editors had worked hard to craft that didn't air on Saturday? Certainly possible. There were no sports reports or reports on anything else on Saturday. WRAL, and probably other stations, understood the impact of this story and gave it the sort of coverage that it demands.

I'm sad that many of the newspapers I've seen, who likely provided good coverage online, didn't answer that call in their print editions.

I'm a hopeless old-school newspaper man. I love online journalism. But you don't save a printout of a website so that you can remember a big story years down the road. You save the print edition, and particularly expect the front page to show how big the story was.

Years from now, people probably still will be wondering why the front page that you saved didn't give better play to the devastating tornadoes that will be remembered for a generation.

I would also, but it's unlikely I'll save the print edition of Sunday's N&O.

MONDAY EDIT: And what do you know? Tornado coverage not only made the front pages of the Greensboro and Winston-Salem paper Monday, it dominated both fronts. I see that the N&O's "Washed Away" series won't resume until Tuesday. Why the couldn't editors have delayed the start of the series and not start it Sunday? Sounds like some papers are trying to get it right a day late.

1 comment:

  1. The Sanford Herald printed an 8-page special edition Monday (the paper doesn't typically publish on Mondays): Here are a few of the local pages: