Commentary

Finger-lickin' front page news

 

In May, Grade the News analyzed the front page of the San Jose Mercury News from the day after Anna Ayala reported finding a finger in her chili bowl at a San Jose Wendy’s to the Sunday following her arrest for allegedly planting that finger.

During those 33 days the Mercury News ran 11 front page stories about the incident. During the same time the fighting in Iraq merited just one front page story while other major national and international stories got no 1A coverage at all.

Two prominent former newspaper editors had this to say about the analysis:

In seeking new readers, are newspapers losing value for citizens?

Geneva Overholser

Interesting comparison, and a powerful statement about news judgment today. (The Merc is far from alone. I'm betting this would be typical. Even the big "serious" national papers are sliding toward this softer focus.)

Readers continue to believe that we are saying that what we put on the front page is the most important thing there is. So here we are, telling them it's fingers in the chili.

We all know why papers are doing this: they are losing readers, and they believe that "softer" and more engaging stories might bring in new readers -- younger readers, especially. But I have a really hard time believing that folks (who otherwise wouldn't) will suddenly decide to take the paper because they are thrilled to find the finger-in-the-chili story 11 times on the front page.

What it says about the media's public-service role is, of course, the most depressing thing. Commercial pressures are increasingly snuffing out the essential role that newspapers play in nourishing our democracy.

True, if nobody reads the paper, it doesn't matter how many times it puts the Iraq war out there. But, with front pages like these -- featuring endless chili-fingers and Michael-Jackson-trial stories -- is it any wonder we in the United States are losing touch with reality internationally, ignoring climatic change, watching our schools implode, standing by while business ethics becomes an oxymoron, etc., etc?

The comparison I think might be even more worrisome -- but maybe, to be fair to the Merc, it would make them look better -- is to see what stories there were that constituted local enterprise. Were they telling San Jose-area readers what they need to know about how their tax dollars are spent, how well their children are taught, how the poor in their community are faring, and how the businesses in town are conducting themselves?

If so, I worry less, for there ARE other papers (and other media, such as NPR) that will do these big national stories.

It's true we should be saddened that once-fine newspapers like this one no longer see their role as including prominently featuring national and international news stories, but what I worry about even more is how faithfully they continue to see their role as doing the really essential (and expensive) work of good local original reporting. Because if they don't do THAT, who else is going to?

This is yet another case -- among legions -- of journalism in America reflecting the same phenomenon that eating in America does: In both arenas, we are overfed but undernourished. There are plenty of sources of information, but who is giving us the understanding, the original reporting, essential for democracy to thrive? Not the big chili-finger purveyors, that's for sure.

Geneva Overholser is the former editor of the Des Moines Register and currently the Curtis B. Hurley Chair in Public Affairs Reporting at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Not every display story has to meet democracy's test ... but most should

William Woo

As a former newspaper editor, I may be more sympathetic to the Mercury News than some others, and I certainly acknowledge the seductive power of certain stories that seem to take on a life of their own.

An earlier incarnation of the Wendy's finger was the bichon frise that died in an incident of road rage and that became an ongoing story far out of proportion to its significance.

I also don't think that every display story has to meet the democracy test -- how can this story make democracy work better.

I'm old fashioned in that I like a high story count on the front page and that requires an entirely different makeup and appearance than the one the Mercury News presents. By the time you've taken care of your daily diversity story, your daily Silicon Valley story and your daily centerpiece (on which the designers have done a lot of work), there's only room for a couple of articles, maybe only one. If you've fallen in love with an ongoing story, it may be hard to put it in perspective.

As an editor, I've come to know that our readers may not be quite as fixated on certain stories as their editors imagine they are -- or are themselves.

So what to do if you've only got an article or two to play with after taking care of the obligatories?

My view is to take a longer look. On every day's paper, in my view, the significant ought to outweigh the insignificant. That ought to be the goal.

On some days, what we call a "reader" simply takes over; on some days, the artwork (photos, graphics) is so striking that it may dominate the display even though the information conveyed may not be terribly significant.

Think of those as the days when you can't resist a second slice of pie or when nothing's as appealing as a Quarter Pounder. Go ahead and indulge yourself.

Eat intelligently day in and day out and you'll be all right. Keep hitting the pie and burgers more than occasionally and you begin to blow up -- or in the case of a newspaper, you start rationalizing and fooling yourself about a front page that's offers more empty calories than nutrition.

Back to the democracy test. If a significant percentage of your front pages are not dominated by stories that help readers with the most significant aspect of their lives, which is to make choices about things that matter in their social, economic, political and communal lives, then you've put other obligations higher than keeping faith with the ideals of a free press.

William Woo is the former editor of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and currently a Lorry I. Lokey Visiting Professor and acting Director of the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University