A caller complained the other day about a one-sided headline and the "lack of balance" in a wire service story. She was right about the headline, wrong about the story. The headline writer had failed to look beyond the first paragraph of the story.
The headline was a good one - it got the reader into the story. The problem was, as far as the reader was concerned, the farther she went into the story, the more she realized the headline told only part of the story and ignored a significant part. She was angry and frustrated at what she perceived to be a willingness on the part of the Deseret News to give foreign views more prominence than American ones.She complained that television (later that evening) didn't handle the story the way the Deseret News did, and that the Salt Lake Tribune (the next day) managed to get both sides of the story into its headline.
I tried to explain a little about our deadlines and how a new piece of a story that moves later in the morning often arrives too late for editors to do anything with than insert that information into already established stories. Often our so-called "bias" is not deliberate - the problem is due to time - or lack of it.
"Couldn't you have waited another half hour for a better version of the story?" she asked incredulously. Oh, how I wish we could some days. I agreed we could have written a better headline. Small consolation.
The advantage - or problem, depending on your point of view - with an afternoon newspaper is that editors are constantly waiting for stories to develop. News events more often occur on PM time (in wire service jargon). An evening newspaper is like a leading indicator: It points to events that are happening as it goes to press, events often timed by newsmakers and others to coincide with the evening television news programs. Additionally, an afternoon paper is playing catch up with events that occurred after the PM cycle changed to AM the previous day. The wire services the Deseret News relies on send stories 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Stories are sent for both cycles, updated from previous cycles. Sometimes the same story can run both cycles (or BC).
A newspaper delivered in the morning has all day to watch the events and put together a news package that reflects the previous day's news. Many AM papers hold two or three editorial conferences as editors go over the significant events and choose the top stories of the day. I appreciated Managing Editor LaVarr Webb's comments two weeks ago about page one stories and how local news is the lifeblood of any newspaper. He also mentioned that we hold one morning news conference, assess the stories we have, the ones we're working on and the ones we're expecting. Many times the ones we're expecting don't pan out, and the ones in the works turn out to be different from what the reporter had said.
Editors of afternoon newspapers are constantly weighing new developments on hundreds of stories throughout the day. News judgments made at 6 a.m., do not necessarily hold up at 6 p.m. When I was writing headlines, I counted myself successful by the number of times the local TV anchors recited my headlines almost verbatim on their 6 o'clock shows.
The challenge for writers and editors on afternoon newspapers is to anticipate news events and then be flexible enough to adjust the play of stories at as developments - and the dreaded deadlines - warrant.
For the significant news event, an editor can adjust the deadline, stop the press or even publish extra pages. A reader won't mind his newspaper not being there at the regular time if he knows that the reason it's late is because someone has shot the president or a plane has crashed in his city. Those are the events that matter that day and are recognizable as news, by both editors and readers.
Where readers and editors part company are on the secondary stories, the stories that hit home with a reader, but not with an editor. As editors we like to remind reporters that nothing's really new - we've seen this type of story hundreds of times. What is new are the names, the places and the impact.
On the day that President Reagan was shot, I remember that it took the government several hours to acknowledge that the president had been hit. All stories coming from Washington immediately following the assassination attempt included this sentence: "The president was not hit." Television news later that afternoon reported that the president's press secretary, James Brady, had died of his wounds. Both reports changed with the passage of time - Reagan was hit; Brady did not die.
I try to remember those things as I am editing stories. Is this the best available information? What are the reporter's sources? What has been left out? What does the reader need to know and expect to know?
Editors get to ask a lot of questions. They also get to answer them.