STEVE BOUSER: Election Front Pages Pose a Challenge
On Wednesday, Fred Walden's wife asked him to go find some newspapers. But when he looked at a Pilot rack, he was disappointed at what he saw.
"She said, 'I want something I can share with our grandchildren someday," recalled Walden, who is the only minority member of the Southern Pines Town Council. "And when I went out and looked, the other papers had huge headlines saying Obama had won. But when I looked at The Pilot, there was nothing like that there. We just felt let down."
He wasn't the only one. We had other calls from black readers -- some of whom threatened to become nonreaders. A couple accused us of "racism."
Whoa. This is the second front-page column I've run in the past few days. I don't plan to make a habit of it, and I'm trying not to sound defensive here. But this deserves a word of explanation.
For the record: We, too, ran a huge (106-point) headline. But ours read, "Dems Sweep Top Jobs." A smaller overline said, "Obama, Perdue, Hagan All Win," and there were small photos of each.
So why didn't we do like the papers that circulate here and have a headline reading, "OBAMA WINS" (The News & Observer of Raleigh) or, "OBAMA SWEEPS INTO HISTORY (The Fayetteville Observer)? Simple: For the same reason you've never seen a headline in our paper reading, "Truck Bomb Kills 150 in Baghdad" or "Russia Invades Georgia" or "$700 Billion Bailout Approved."
Those other papers are both dailies, which routinely publish "wire news" from The Associated Press or other services. On the day after an election, they break out the "war type" and top the page with a big banner telling about the national results. But papers like ours are a different breed of cat. Election or not, we mostly confine ourselves to covering local news, assuming that our readers get their national and international news elsewhere.
The only exception I can think of in the 11 years I've been here was our 9/11 paper, topped with a monster headline that said, "Day of Terror!" Otherwise, when there's major national or world news, a paper like ours typically compromises by finding a way to "localize" it by focusing on some angle involving people in our own community. The election of four years ago, for example gave us a natural entry point: the involvement of local product John Edwards.
I'm proud as can be of the job our staff did on covering this week's historic election. Quite a few of us were still down here after 2 a.m. wrapping it up to put the most complete and well-packaged paper we could on your doorstep a few hours later. And we did spend quite a bit of time wrestling with a key question: How do we present the news visually on our front page? What do we play up? How do we phrase our banner headline?
This time around, as usual, we paid a lot of attention to gathering and publishing the results for the U.S. Congress seat, state Senate, state House, district attorney and such. Those are very important to our readers, and they can't get it anywhere else. Still, at a time when a historic presidential election was on everyone's lips, let's face it: We would look merely silly going with a huge headline screaming out the results of, say, a school board race. There was no entirely satisfactory approach.
So our solution for Wednesday's paper, again, was to "localize" the momentous Obama story by having our reporters cover the local celebration and other reactions to it -- while folding in response to the other big state races as well. That's why our major headline read the way it did. If it looked a little odd sitting beside another newspaper rack shouting, "OBAMA WINS," so be it. We had a different job to do.
Should we have thought sooner about concentrating on how the black community reacted to the Obama triumph? Maybe. But rather than calling that racism, I consider it just the opposite. To be honest, we weren't thinking of Obama as black. We were thinking of him as a Democrat and lumping the victories of fellow Democrats Kay Hagan (U.S. Senate) and Bev Perdue (governor) in with his in one story, leaving enough room on the page for the stories about the local races that are our bread-and-butter -- and which the other papers had hardly a word about.
Again, that's our job. And it extends to photographs as well. The dailies all ran large pictures of a jubilant Obama. But a paper like ours hardly ever leads with national or international art -- and couldn't if we wanted to, since we don't subscribe to the AP Wirephoto service or others. Our lead picture Wednesday, by our Glenn Sides, showed three local Republican winners celebrating.
(Still, Publisher David Woronoff sometimes must feel as if he can't win. Just yesterday he got a call from a reader giving him holy hell and calling The Pilot "a joke" for playing up the reactions to the Democratic state and national victories at a time when the Moore County vote on those races went Republican, as usual. She accused us of playing up Obama because we endorsed him editorially.)
For whatever it's worth, let me pass along some examples of the "screamer" headlines that other nondaily papers ran on the same day. Cherokee Scout: "Democrats Win Big." Mooresville Tribune: "Republicans Keep All 3 Commission Seats." The State Port Pilot, Southport: "Moore, Rabon Lose Seats to GOP." Carteret County News-Times, Morehead City: "County Goes Red." All local, in other words.
A bit of Moore County history also helps keep things in perspective: Four years ago, in 2004, The Pilot's lead headline said, "Still Up in The Air." Eight years ago, in 2000, it read, "New Look for School Board." Twelve years ago, in 1996, it read, "Moore Voters Buck Trend."
So there's a pattern here: relentlessly local, whether the presidential winner at the top of the ballot is white or black. Call us provincial. Call us small-town and narrow-minded. But please don't call us racist.
Steve Bouser is editor of The Pilot. Contact him at email@example.com
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