By Denise Tessier
Years ago, before we had quick access to in-depth national reports via the Internet, on more than one occasion I found myself defending the Albuquerque Journal for its so-called shortcomings in delivering national news.
In one conversation in particular, an indignant local resident called the Journal “useless” and not worth buying because he felt its national coverage fell short. I was a Journal writer at the time, and to these critics I tried without success to explain that the majority of the Journal’s column-inch space should be devoted to Albuquerque and New Mexico. It was, after all, the Albuquerque Journal and the “State’s Leading Newspaper.” And at the time, the Journal did a pretty decent job covering Albuquerque and the state, with correspondents in its far reaches. Certainly, I responded, you wouldn’t expect national publications like The New York Times and Wall Street Journal to cover Albuquerque with the same knowledge and interest exhibited by reporters at Albuquerque’s two (then) dailies.
Why, then, would readers expect to get national news from their local daily? I surmise that it’s because the Journal – like many dailies, including some quite small papers around the state – traditionally have devoted space to national stories on their front and inside pages. And they continue to do so, even though readers likely have gotten the gist of those national events online before these papers hit the streets.
Such was the case this week with the death of Osama Bin Laden, when the Journal gave up valuable print real estate to this international story several days in a row, illustrating the heft of bin Laden’s demise in terms of news.
On Monday, the Journal’s entire front page was devoted to a single story (by the Associated Press in Washington), “BIN LADEN IS DEAD”, accompanied by four related photographs. The story’s jump, a Washington Post bio on bin Laden and analysis took up A-2 and A-3, and the Journal’s daily self-described “front-page opinion column,” UpFront (which happened on this day to be written by science writer John Fleck), was bumped inside to A5. The bin Laden news apparently came in too late for any kind of remake of the Journal’s Editorial pages.
This is not unusual for a high-circulation daily; a survey of Monday’s front pages in U.S. papers (and a couple from Canada) shows this was the norm in terms of bin Laden coverage the day after his death. (Some were shockingly non-objective, like the New York Post’s“Vengeance at Last; US Nails the Bastard” and the front pages of the Toronto Sun and the New York Daily News, both of which simply shouted, in huge type next to a bin Laden photo, “Rot in Hell”.)
The next day’s coverage in the Journal was equally heavy on the bin Laden story, with the front page again devoted entirely to it, including a lead story headlined “Inside the Hunt for the World’s Most Wanted Man” in 72-point type. This story filled the top two-thirds of the page it shared with a story about President Obama’s remarks (“A Good Day for America”), a box highlighting four related inside stories and the paper’s first local-angle story, which quoted the father of a New Mexico soldier who lost his life in the decade-long campaign against al-Qaida (“Airman’s Father: ‘I’m Glad They Got Him’”). Related stories filled A2, A4 and A5, including a second local angle story, this one on heightened security in New Mexico.
By now, the editorial page was able to get in on the action, with the Editorial Page devoted to an editorial, cartoon and two columns on the subject. The Op-Ed page, too, had an unusual column: a first-person report from Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M. (no link available at the time of this post), on his arrival in Washington, D.C. to crowds jubilant at bin Laden’s “day of reckoning.” On this day, the traditional (for the Journal) Tuesday two-page Letters section was whittled to a half-dozen to make room for these pieces.
The most obvious local-angle story the Journal could have pursued – that of the inevitable offense to New Mexico’s Mescalero Apaches (and other tribal people) in naming the bin Laden death mission “Geronimo” – was MIA, but it showed up as an inside Washington Post dispatch on Wednesday, Day Three, when staff-generated state and city stories returned to the front page. A more complete New Mexico account on the Geronimo insult appeared Thursday via the Associated Press. That day, Journal columnist Leslie Linthicum’s UpFront piece focused instead on an even more compelling New Mexico angle, which deservedly brought UpFront back to Page One: The fact that al-Qaida’s future might lay in the hands of Anwar al-Awlaki – a jihadist born in Las Cruces.
The UpFront was one of two bin Laden-related stories on the front page Thursday. The other three all were local and, like the four local stories on Wednesday’s front page, were strong staff-generated stories that had been likely held and now were busted out. Wednesday’s front page was extraordinarily strong in terms of content and layout, with pop and country stars’ photos surrounding a story about free concert tickets for county administrators, an UpFront by Thom Cole, “Suit: Banks Bled Thornburg Dry” and “Garduño’s Saga Heats Up,” plus, surprisingly for the Journal, a photo promotion for an inside story on “Arctic Melting.”
The full page of topic letters that normally would have run Tuesday – in this case a package on the bankruptcy of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra – ran on what would normally have been Wednesday’s OpEd.
The point of all this is?
That the Journal does carry national news. And also to question whether it should do so to the extent it does, considering how many other national news sources are available to readers. Wouldn’t the paper have been just as strong if the Journal had continued to run its local-focus stories, adding local angles on bin Laden’s death, like the comments from the airman’s father, the Geronimo reaction story, the story on heightened N.M. security, Pearce’s column and the Las Cruces jihadist piece?
Perhaps. But another side to this is, that in presenting the bin Laden story as it did, the Journal did what experienced editors do best for readers: They sorted out the unfolding developments and put the stories in context.
Editors literally do this in daily news “budget” meetings, where the national news editor’s list of stories is weighed against stories-of-the-day lists compiled by the state editor and the city editor (and perhaps a story from another department, like sports, makes its way into the mix). But the editors decide which stories will run on the front page and which will run inside, in what order and at what length.
On Monday, the first day after bin Laden’s death, Journal editors no doubt scrambled to remake the front page to accommodate this story, huge in terms of news value. They came up with a full page of the breaking story, “BIN LADEN IS DEAD / Justice Has Been Done” (albeit the morning after most people already knew), with a picture of the slain terrorist put in context with smaller photos of the Twin Towers falling and the fire at the Pentagon – the two Sept. 11 terrorist acts bin Laden had masterminded. President Obama was pictured as part of the story, as commander in chief and deliverer of the news of the raid on bin Laden’s compound.
Tuesday’s Page One photo choice was gripping and worth the large-scale treatment, depicting a stone-faced Obama and incredulous Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, along with other officials, watching the raid as it was executed in real time.
The layout, choice of photos and orderliness of the stories were carefully sorted out for the reader, who, reading online, would have to navigate the myriad angles of the story without such guidance (unless one is perusing a well-packaged Web service like that provided by The New York Times).
On a story like this, when the adrenaline is pumping and excitement about the story is high for both editors and staff members, alertness and quick decisions trump the time for second-guessing that might muddle the delivery and presentation of a more routine national news story. In the case of the bin Laden story, the Journal delivered national/international news over several days and, with the exception of the lack of a staff reporter on the Geronimo angle, did it very well.
But the Journal’s track record on other national stories has not been as successful of late, especially with regard to political news coverage.
I was reminded of those Journal critics I referred to at the beginning of this column when a month ago I read in the Journal an Associated Press news report about a Tea Party rally in Madison, Wis., and felt compelled to go online to get further information. The story had reported that:
At one point conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart took the stage and told the labor supporters to “go to hell.”
“I’m serious!” he screamed. “Go to hell! You’re trying to divide America!”
I doubted the credibility of the story because I couldn’t imagine such an incongruous statement coming from Breitbart, who’s engaged in nation-dividing himself with doctored tapes that managed to tear down ACORN and get Shirley Sherrod fired from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. On YouTube, however, one can virtually see the rally in context, and come to an understanding of this (incredible) event for oneself.
And I had doubted the story because, frankly, many of the wire service stories the Journal carries of late, particularly when related to political issues, have often mixed news and opinion and were topped, not with news headlines, but with labels like these: “Will Gen. Petraeus Makes Waves at the CIA? Drastic Changes May Cause Revolt” (A8, April 30), “Obama Stonewalls Records Request” (A10, March 13), “Will President Try To Work With GOP?” (Page One, Oct, 26, 1020), and “When Will U.S. Speak Up About Yemen?” (A7, April 27).
It wouldn’t be surprising if some day, people will look back on state newspapers’ coverage of international events as quaint, because it’s certainly within reason that dailies like the Journal will be forced to focus solely on state and local news to remain viable, filling a niche no other paper does. Meanwhile, readers can get their national news from the Journal, in many cases with extraordinary depth and organization. The caveat is that wire service stories passing for news might be muddled with unnecessary subjective information. And, even more so than in the past, it’s yesterday’s news.