On a 'slow' news week that wasn't, The Sun stood out

The Baltimore Sun

The week between Christmas and New Year's tends to be slow for news and is, not surprisingly, the most popular time of year for reporters and editors to take vacations. This year's holiday week, however, was anything but slow for the remaining newsroom staffers at The Sun.

This holiday season, The Sun sparkled with its coverage of news - some of it late-breaking, some of it "enterprise" reporting and some of it the result of careful preparation and sharp execution.

Most notable was the reporting and presentation of the death of former President Gerald R. Ford in the Dec. 27 and Dec. 28 editions. The bulletin announcing Ford's death hit The Sun's newsroom at midnight - right in the middle of the first-edition press run. Editors quickly notified the newspaper's printing plant to slow the presses so that the news desk could remake the front and inside pages to accommodate the story.

Like some other newspapers, The Sun had a substantial part of the staff-written obituary already prepared, but it required a significant amount of updating on deadline. Sun staffers in Baltimore and Washington worked the phones to get fresh reaction; design and photo editors remade the front page and the A section; and copy editors checked and edited all the material. By 12:50 a.m., the final pages were sent to the printing plant, just 50 minutes after the news broke.

The bottom line is that all but 35,000 out of the 230,000 newspapers printed had the detailed obituary of the 38th president, complete with photos and analysis. The secondary Page One headline, "President brought calm after Watergate storm," offered readers the essence of Ford's time in office.

In my view, this is the print-edition newspaper at its most relevant. The midnight-to-2 a.m. time frame is a newspaper's best opportunity to present in-depth, breaking news that will surprise its subscribers the next morning - and sell more single copies at newsstands - because the news is too late for local TV coverage and most readers, viewers and listeners have already gone to bed.

The Dec. 28 edition offered another prominent Page One article about Ford titled "Nation's Respect." What made this edition special was Sun reporter Linell Smith's incisive profile of Betty Ford, whose candor and energy set new standards for first ladies. The article reminded readers that Mrs. Ford was in many ways just as influential as her husband in the long run.

Reader Craig Hilliard said: "I really enjoyed your piece on Betty Ford. ... At first I wasn't sure that it was called for, but after reading your article I decided that it's entirely appropriate, given what an integral role she played in her husband's life and career."

The death of singer James Brown, "The Godfather of Soul," twice received top-of-Page-One play. The Dec. 29 edition featured an article from The Sun's Nick Madigan, who reported on the throngs of people who paid tribute to Brown at the Apollo Theater in New York City.

Several readers complained about that second Page One story. Stanley Calmas said: "I was very disappointed that James Brown was given big play on today's front page and President Ford was not. Your editors must have their priorities out of order."

I think the decision to give Brown a second Page One treatment made sense. The singer's controversial personal life notwithstanding, he had a huge impact on American music and was a star for more than 40 years. The Sun gave Ford's day of tribute, including the state funeral, prominent front-page play in its Jan. 3 edition.

Another holiday week news story was the execution of Saddam Hussein, which broke at 10:30 p.m. Dec. 29. The Sun produced a substantial, two-page package of reactions, timelines and analyses that appeared in all the Dec. 30 editions.

For some readers, however, the huge, five-column headline - "EXECUTED" - was too much. Michael S. Eckenrode said: "Though he may have been an awful person who did terrible things, your celebratory headline made me sick to my heart."

No Sun reporter was more active during the holidays than Washington bureau correspondent David Wood, who arrived in Iraq Dec. 24. His front-page article, "For many, another Christmas in Iraq; Troops deal with a holiday far away," was written in time to make the newspaper's Dec. 25 front page even though Wood had not slept for more than 30 hours. His story described how 15,000 troops stationed at a sprawling air base west of Baghdad, including Cpl. Courie Roberts of West Baltimore, celebrated Christmas.

Wood continued to report from Iraq and Afghanistan throughout the holiday week and wrote his final piece during a five-hour flight from Kabul to Stuttgart, Germany. That article, "Marines locked in Anbar standoff," ran on the front page of The Sun's Jan. 2 issue. Wood returned to Washington a week ago Saturday, just in time to celebrate New Year's Eve.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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