STEVE BOUSER: Shoptalk: Sorry, But Bad News Is News
This makes two "shoptalk" columns in a row. But I wanted to touch on another journalistic topic before it's completely outdated.
"I admired the front page of your paper on Sunday, Dec. 24," a reader wrote. "It was almost like seeing an issue of The Cleveland Plain Dealer again -- which, you may recall, has all good news on the outside and buries the bad news on the inside. Keep up the good work. You're nearly there."
Now, I don't want to look any gift horses in the mouth, but I fear this is a case of getting praised for something you're not doing -- and wouldn't do.
Sure, we do try to make our Christmas Eve papers warm and fuzzy. The recent front page showcased Katherine Evans' wonderful feature about April Wood, a Moore Buddies alumna from a troubled home who came full circle and is now the organization's program manager. We also ran Jim Dodson's nice column "Making Some Light on Darkest Night"; a feature about bikes for the needy; and a lead article about the new senior center. The only "bad news" headline was a small one about drug arrests.
But this is a one-time holiday aberration. We're not trending that way. We're not "nearly there." Nor do I think you really want us to be.
Nor is The Cleveland Plain Dealer, for that matter.
Out of curiosity, I went onto the Web after receiving the letter and checked out The Plain Dealer's most recent front pages. As I expected, they had about the same story mix you'd find in any metro daily, with lots of "negative" headlines like "Powell: U.S. Losing War in Iraq," "Mount Hood Climber Found Dead," "Pentagon Reports Attacks Surged to New High" and "Storm Strands Thousands." No burying of bad news here.
I e-mailed Plain Dealer Editor Doug Clifton, a professional acquaintance from his days at The Charlotte Observer.
"I've been editor of The Plain Dealer for almost eight years," he replied, "and I can tell you we have no such policy. I can't speak for prior regimes, but I don't think good-news-out-front, bad-inside was ever a policy. We get our share of complaints about bad news; it's an age-old burden for folks in the news business."
Some readers weary of being barraged with reports of calamities and crimes may think they would prefer reading nothing but happy tidings and feel-good stuff. But I guarantee you that such Pollyanna fare would quickly grow as bland -- and ultimately as nauseating -- as a steady diet of candy and cake, with no meat and potatoes.
Some papers here and there have tried the noble experiment of giving their readers only the kind of "positive" reportage they claim to prefer, but they haven't lasted long.
Sorry, but conflict is news. Crime is news. Why do you think the heavily ratings-driven local TV stations top their evening news with whatever gang shooting or shocking case of child abuse there may be -- giving rise to the cynical saying "If it bleeds, it leads"? It's not because they're foisting such fare off on their viewers. It's because that's what keeps 'em tuned in. We're talking human nature here.
Here at The Pilot, we can labor all we want to on some important political analysis or edifying public-service feature that we think ought to be gratefully received -- often with little visible effect. But let a double murder or bank robbery happen, and experience has repeatedly shown that we might as well advise the press room to run off some extra copies, because the racks will be selling out.
Do we pander to readers on that kind of thing? No. But there's a clear pattern. And the same thing often applies when it comes to what kinds of stories register the most "hits" on our Web site.
I've never understood exactly what "bad news" is, anyway. If the doctor tells me I've got cancer, it's not what I want to hear. But he's doing me a favor by letting me get started doing something about it. I figure the same principle applies when a paper tells its readers about some unpleasant development -- crime, problems in the schools, a public health issue -- of which they need to be aware.
News is the unusual. Sometimes the newsworthy development in question is a positive one in anybody's book. A local person wins the lottery. Or local kids do better on standardized tests. But often, by the nature of things, the noteworthy developments are mayhem and misfortune -- or at least a juicy political feud.
Look at it this way: If a holdup or flood or gun battle between neighbors is so nontypical as to make the paper, that suggests that things in our community are otherwise rocking along pretty well. Isn't that good news?
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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