Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Comments and complaints

A subscriber and acquaintance of mine confronted me last night at a dinner meeting about the front page of yesterday's newspaper. "What in the world was that story about that murder in Ohio doing there?" he asked. It's a good question that deserves more than one of my typically smart-ass answers.

The story, accompanied by four photos, that took up just more than half of the front page of Monday's edition detailed the explosion of a family after the father, 74, was accused of hiring someone to kill his wife. Written by Meghan Barr of the Associated Press, it was a long story that also took up most of Page 2 and contained no local angle. My short answer was a question: "Have you ever heard of a slow news day?"

Mondays are particularly tough for us. Government, local and otherwise, shuts down on Friday afternoon. Although police are active over the weekend, their reports are often inaccessible until Monday morning. We do try to save some local news for the front page; that's why you'll always see our "What's Up With That?" feature there.

Our night editor is given discretion to choose news from around the state, nation and world to fill the rest of the front page. The editor looks for articles that are - ideally - both important and interesting. Sometimes, there aren't any, so the editor opts for stories that are either very important or very interesting, but not both. A story about nuclear arms negotiations with the Russians may be very important, but not exactly riveting reading. And a story like "A death in the family" might be not the least bit important but is nevertheless fascinating. The night editor on duty Sunday night chose "interesting" over "important."

Like it or not, newspaper readers are attracted by sex, death and crime. This is not some anecdotal assumption but rather a cold, hard fact. Take, for instance, the statistics on page views of our Web site for the week of Nov. 16. The most-read story for that week, at 4,071 page views, was about a rape in Canonsburg. The top 10 stories for that week all involved homicide, drugs, arson, traffic accidents or crime. Coming in at No. 11, finally, was an article about gas drilling.

So, on a slow news day, you can't really go wrong with a well-written tale of murder, sprinkled with sex and greed.

Sometimes, I hate this business.


Brant said...

It frightens me that you understand my thought processes so completely. We're like an old married couple. Yuck. ;) Seriously, the AP saves some of its best-written and more in-depth stories for the Sunday and Monday editions. The people there also realize that it's typically a slow time for the local newspapers, and it's an opportunity for us to showcase a story that, while it might not be specifically about people we know, still contains elements that all of us can relate to.

Anonymous said...

Brant and Park, you have both made a reasoned argument for a logical business decision. The shame is the public is not honest enough with themselves that this is what they truly prefer. They like to state they don't, but the reality is the reality. Thank you for a very honest comment. The world is too full of people that would rather lie than offend.

Anonymous said...

In these days of 24-hour news on TV and the Internet, it's hard to believe that people still take the time to read a printed paper. I don't. Especially in a Monday, anything important that happened on Sunday has already been talked to death online and on the air. Editing is a tightrope walk, and I hope that subscribers understand how thin the wire is.