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Coverage of fire shows best of journalism

The Baltimore Sun

On the morning of May 22, one of the worst fires in modern Baltimore history engulfed an east side rowhouse, killing six people and severely injuring seven others, mostly children. This tragic story riveted the region. It also displayed the strengths of a metropolitan newspaper that is built to respond quickly.

The Sun's early news team, created to quickly feed breaking news to the paper's Web site, led an energetic effort that set the stage for a rich and comprehensive package of articles, photos and graphics that appeared in the Wednesday, May 23 edition.

But the event also spotlighted the issues of balance and context that The Sun faces when presenting Web site readers with large packages of news.

During the first two days after the fire, more than a dozen reporters and editors from the city staff, features and the medical/science team joined forces. The Sun offered readers unique stories about the treatment for burn victims and about the distraught owners of the burned rowhouse.

The May 24 front page featured two strong follow-up articles. One was the compelling story of 13-year-old Davonte Witherspoon, who had escaped the fire only to return to try to save his older brother, Tashon Thomas, who could not walk. Neither made it out alive. The other story showed how the fire deaths highlighted the city's serious shortage of adequate housing for the poor and homeless.

But the article that resonated most with readers was reporter Doug Donovan's first-day narrative of the city firefighters who battled the rowhouse blaze. This requires the kind of intense reporting and skillful writing that is difficult to produce on deadline. Donovan interviewed nearly all the firefighters who had entered the building and pieced together the details of the rescue attempt. One firefighter told Donovan: "What seemed like forever was really just a few minutes."

Donovan said later: "I believe it was an important story because it gave a sense of hope to a scene filled with despair. It makes the horror of what happened to the children who died somewhat less gruesome knowing that someone cared enough to risk their own lives to save them. Reporters often cringe at having to write a story that lionizes anyone, knowing that the whole truth is never so neat. But a lot of times, especially in split-second moments of life and death, it is."

A number of readers responded.

Ray Fehr said: "I wanted to say what a fine article you authored describing the extraordinary efforts by the members of the Baltimore City Fire Department at the tragic fire on Cecil Avenue. It captured the essence of the job that these men and women perform, day in and day out. When an article such as yours appears, it is a reaffirmation of the spirit and dedication that everyone in the fire service shares, and the public rarely sees. Thank you for taking the time to look beyond the normal reporting of hard facts and giving your readers a deeper understanding on this profession."

From reader Jack Hughes: "Wow! Words really cannot describe how I felt about the expansive coverage of the stories and photos involving the Cecil Avenue fire. You guys threw everyone out there to give me a broad understanding of this very sad story. So many perspectives, from the main story, to the heroic firefighters, the giving homeowner, the loving church, and the hospital staff trying to save the injured. This is in-depth coverage that TV news cannot give me. You continue to give me the reason to open my door at 6:30 a.m. for my daily news fix."

Wednesday readers of The Sun's Web site received a somewhat different picture, however. The Web site presented Donovan's article (which was played as a sidebar in the print edition) above the main news story and used a photo of exhausted firefighters instead of the main print-edition photo of a fire department chaplain comforting grieving relatives. There was a link to the main news story beneath Donovan's article.

Some readers called and sent e-mails to complain that this presentation marginalized the victims of the fire - the dead and the survivors - by giving too much attention to the firefighters.

For those who manage the Web site, the decision to feature on the home page a story that had been a secondary piece in the paper reflected the fact that the main news story on the fire had been featured on the home page for more than 24 hours and they felt the need to feature a fresher perspective on the tragedy. In this case, the newer firefighters story had been getting more reader traffic, so it was given the most prominent position.

But for some Web-site-only readers, the context and balance found in the print edition was missing. Web editors clearly need to continue changing the home page through the day to offer readers something fresh, hour by hour. Hopefully, they also will be able to find innovative ways to continue to spotlight on the home page the best of the paper's recent work. As newspapers move boldly into the integrated world of "multi-platforms," this is an area that deserves editors' attention.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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