A loyal Columbian reader, Ray from Camas, dropped me a note earlier this week to talk about the front page of our Tuesday, June 23, edition. Our top story was by our police reporter, Jerzy Shedlock, headlined “County to push forward on body cams.” Jerzy talked to a number of local sources, and his story reported that local law enforcement is much more interested in equipping police with body-worn cameras in the wake of recent events.
Also on the top half of the page, or “above the fold” in newspaper lingo, was an Associated Press story “COVID-19 cases surge in West, South.” As you can interpret from the headline, it was the wire service’s daily roundup, or “main bar” in newspaper lingo, about the novel coronavirus.
The third story on the page, which we call the “center package” because of its dominant art, was a local story by Patty Hastings about how local Catholic churches are adapting Mass to comply with new health guidelines and still serve the faithful during the pandemic.
Ray wasn’t happy with the page. “I think you made a big mistake this morning,” he wrote. “… I don’t think there is anything more important right now than controlling COVID-19. … Your paper can’t control what people do, but it sure can have a powerful influence. Your primary headline in big print should have been the article on how cases are increasing.”
I don’t necessarily disagree with him — the pandemic is one of the biggest stories of my career, if not the biggest, and media does have a powerful influence on public behavior. But when it comes to making decisions on lead stories, and everything that goes on the front page for that matter, we try to think locally, not globally. We give a lot of preference to local news you can’t find elsewhere.
We know through surveys such as one that Pew Research Center conducted in 2018 that local consumers get news from TV, the internet and a variety of sources beyond The Columbian. Frankly, the best thing we have to sell is our local news, generated by our talented and hard-working journalists like Jerzy and Patty. Like any other business, we try to promote our core product.
So, Ray, thanks for the good question. The reason we led with the body cams story is that it was important, local and unique to our paper. I thought the daily COVID-19 story was important, too, but getting it above the fold seemed like enough, given that many of our readers had probably already seen the story on TV or the internet.
The question got me wondering how much local news runs on A1. So on Thursday, I went back and looked at the last four weeks. Of 86 front-page stories, 49 of them, or 57 percent, were written by our staff. (I am not including wire stories about Washington or Oregon in this count.)
How about center packages? 22 of 24, or 92 percent, were local. And of 24 lead stories, 19 were local. That’s 79 percent.
We’re not alone in this, of course. One newspaper I try to watch is The Herald, which serves Snohomish County. It’s as close to a sister paper as we have in the Pacific Northwest — about the same size in circulation and staff, published on a fringe of a major metro area, and in the same market as a metro daily paper and a whole bunch of broadcasters.
From what I have seen, most days they use their entire front page for local news, with “teases” to the top national and international stories inside. Any local news that doesn’t make the front is usually played on Page 2 or Page 3, and the wire news is farther back.
We’re not there yet, and have maintained our Clark County “cover” inside our “A” section even as the financial fallout from COVID-19 has forced us down from four daily sections to two on weekdays.
Maybe someday we will adopt The Herald’s approach and make our A1 cover entirely local most days. Either way, though, you can expect us to emphasize local news.