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From the Newsroom: Why we put Pac-12 news atop Page A1

Here’s a question that I had in my mind earlier this week: When Donald Trump picked Mike Pence as his running mate in 2016, where did the story appear in The Columbian?

Answer: On Page A3.

To me, it isn’t a lock that a presidential candidate picking a running mate is an A1 story. It’s true that a week or so later, when Hillary Clinton tapped Tim Kaine as her running mate, we played the story on the front page. (As I recall, the Pence news had been leaked a few days early, so that is why the story went inside.)

Wednesday’s front page is where we played Tuesday’s announcement that Joe Biden had selected Sen. Kamala Harris of California for the second half of his ticket. It appeared toward the bottom of the page, or, as we like to say, “below the fold.” The Oregonian played its Harris story on Page A16, with a “refer” box below the fold on A1.

We led the front page with the Pac-12 Conference’s decision to cancel fall sports, including the lucrative football season, the profits from which cover the costs of most of the other college athletics.

The page left Vancouver reader Theresa Kelsay “scratching her head,” she wrote. “While both are, perhaps, once-in-a lifetime events, which one will be recorded in history books and which one belonged on the sports page?”

I would argue both are historic occasions. Harris is the first woman of color to appear on a presidential ticket. She is not the first woman on a major party ticket (Geraldine Ferraro, 1984) nor the first person of color (Barack Obama, 2012), but her candidacy is important, especially in a year when we are discussing issues surrounding race and privilege. And, of course, it’s unprecedented for a major college sports season to be canceled due to a pandemic.

Here are three factors that played into my decision to play the stories where we did:

• Timing: News that Biden had picked Harris broke on the wire at 10:19 a.m. and was immediately all over TV and talk radio. If you figure that the typical Columbian print reader picked up the paper around 7 a.m., the news was 21 hours old by Wednesday morning. The football announcement came later in the day Tuesday, and received a lot less air time, since it was a regional story.

• Audience: If 2016 is any indication, about half of Clark County will vote for Trump/Pence and about half will vote for Biden/Harris. My guess is that Biden picking Harris won’t sway a lot of local Trump supporters. Also, there are more college football fans than there are voters. In 2016, a little less than 129 million people voted for either Trump or Clinton. In the 2018-19 season, college football games on TV attracted more than 163 million unique fans, and another 47 million attended games in person, according to the National Football Foundation.

• Regional impact: None of the major party candidates are from the Pacific Northwest. With Oregon and Washington solidly in the blue, they aren’t likely to do much, if any, campaigning here. On the other hand, the two states are home to four Pac-12 schools, two of which are among the 25 most valuable U.S. college football programs, according to Forbes. No. 14 University of Oregon generated an average $96 million in annual revenue and $56 million in annual profit from 2015-18. Forbes ranked the University of Washington 19th, with $92 million in revenue and $43 million in profit annually. Add in smaller but substantial programs at Washington State and Oregon State, and you get a very big number.

Now, I know my explanations won’t convince every die-hard Democrat, and maybe even a few Republicans, that leading with football and putting Harris downpage was the right decision. But consider this letter from Ray Witter of Camas:

“After some reflection and reading the excellent editorial on the same subject, I came to the conclusion that your choice of lead articles was absolutely correct. The shutdown of sports activities is directly related to people not following the guidelines. The choice of the Democratic VP candidate, although important, was not nearly as important as defeating the virus. Hopefully articles like that on the top of the front page will change a few minds. We need all the help we can get.”

I hadn’t even thought of that reason. Thanks, Ray!


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