Why The Sun needs to toot its horn on news coverage

The Baltimore Sun

Many newspaper journalists have long been uncomfortable with the marketing of news stories with labels that promote scoops or special reporting. At the same time, newspapers such as The Sun have long been frustrated whenever radio, TV or Internet media organizations appropriate their news stories without giving the newspaper credit.

For instance, if The Sun puts an early version of a developing news story on its Web site, competitors can take the information and package it as their own work. In this era of fierce media competition, the situation has put The Sun at a disadvantage.

In an effort to make clear The Sun's "ownership" of reporting, the newspaper has in recent months begun promoting the best of the paper's own work with labels - "Sun Exclusive," "Special Report" and "Sun Follow-up." In addition, the paper has been labeling major series and important running stories with notes that invite readers to view related stories and other material on the newspaper's Web site.

Some readers have wondered whether using the labels diminishes the importance of other news on the page. Other readers see the labels as pretentious and jarring. But if readers are jarred into recognizing that this content is available only from and reported first by The Sun, then the labels are, in my view, worthwhile.

Says Deputy Managing Editor Monty Cook: "Telling readers about The Sun's unique news and information is a way to differentiate the newspaper from any and all competitors."

Three recent examples of "Sun Exclusives" illustrate what types of articles editors consider important enough to warrant such a label. Two were on the Sept. 13 front page.

First was reporter Larry Carson's article about Howard County officials' plan to offer health care to all uninsured county residents. The plan would put prosperous Howard County in the national forefront of efforts to make health care available to all. The article was placed in the lead news position - in my view, the right decision.

Bill Innanen of Howard County was one of a number of readers who responded: "I've always felt remotely guilty about my wonderful health care when there are so many, neighbors in fact, that are going without or are depending on our county hospital's ER. Then The Baltimore Sun has a front page, 'above the fold' article about a plan to provide health care for the uninsured. I have just three things to say about this attempt to do something that really should be done on a national scale: 1. I hope it works. 2. I really hope it works. 3. I really, really hope it works."

The other "Sun Exclusive" was foreign correspondent Scott Calvert's article about Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu's views on the current state of his country, South Africa. In the story the former Anglican archbishop, whose efforts to overturn apartheid stirred the world's conscience in the 1970s and 1980s, gave a frank and honest appraisal of the continuing problems of the ruling African National Congress.

Reporter Calvert had worked for weeks to arrange an interview with the 75-year-old Tutu. Calvert noted later: "I felt the story was a very nice fit for The Sun. Not only does he remain a visible and vocal presence in South Africa, but he is someone many of our readers 'know' from the anti-apartheid struggle. So I thought his criticism of the current situation would resonate and that readers would be naturally curious to learn why he felt that way."

Said reader John Payne of Baltimore: "A terrific article. The kind of foreign news cutting-edge reporting we were used to in The Sun of the past."

The article provided excellent balance and depth and, in my view, was worth the "Sun Exclusive" label.

The "Sun Exclusive" on the Sunday, Sept. 16 front page was a report about the tens of thousands of derelict crab pots that litter the Chesapeake Bay. Written by Candus Thomson, the prominently displayed article detailed how these traps, usually set adrift by storms, "are potential deathtraps for fish, terrapins and crabs - and a threat to the bay's fragile ecology."

Said reader Ken Lewis: "Thanks for the comprehensive article in today's Sun. Educating the public and the legislature about the problem in such a powerful way should lead to action to resolve it."

Reader B. Hennessey thought that the article was well done but that the large front-page presence, combined with the "Sun Exclusive" label, was overdone. "This was a solid story with several good pictures that The Sun gave way too much attention to. To me, the 'exclusive' tag was self-serving and over the top."

This critique indicates how such devices can turn off readers. In my view, overuse of the labels risks diluting their effectiveness. But because The Sun's newsroom staff of more than 300 makes it the primary reporter and source of news in Maryland, reminding readers and the competition of what the newspaper produces is now, more than ever, necessary.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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