Print, Web mix conveys power of human drama

The Baltimore Sun

When readers talk about what most appeals to them in their newspaper, they frequently cite stories that focus on people, rather than government, crime or disaster. Journalists recognize the importance of "people" stories, too, and work hard to focus on the human dimension in the news they report. When stories marrying news and human drama are successful, the results can be far-reaching - particularly given the power of the Internet to extend the life of a story.

The Sun has offered a number of powerful stories featuring people in recent days. One notable article, "Baltimore family joins health care showdown," focussed on the Frosts, a Baltimore family of six that was facing bankruptcy from medical bills after two of their children had suffered brain injuries in a traffic accident. The family avoided financial disaster because with an annual income of $45,000 it qualified for the State's Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), designed to assist low-income families.

Reporter Lynn Anderson's Sept. 27 article was played below the fold on the front but was later given a prominent position on The Sun's Web site. An advantage of the online edition is that editors can change the home page (the Internet front page) several times during a 24-hour news cycle. This can help a story that initially received less prominence find a larger audience.

Anderson's well-timed story drew more local and national attention to the debate in Congress over funding for the SCHIP program, and the Frost family became national spokespeople for efforts to extend SCHIP.

(A majority in both houses of Congress subsequently voted to extend the program but President Bush vetoed the bill Wednesday, because he believes the plan expands the program beyond its purpose.)

More than 60 reader comments were posted on The Sun's Web site about Anderson's story. Reactions ran the gamut from high praise to strong criticism, but the sheer amount of discussion was impressive.

Seth Michaels said: "Not to be callous, but as parents, one of them should have gotten a job that provided health insurance or allowed them to purchase it long ago and not expect the state to pick up the tab for their choices. ... These programs are meant to be a short term protection to give people the time to get what they need, not to provide long term handouts to people who are capable of getting insurance in other ways."

From Scott in Beltsville: "It would be wonderful if our representatives had the political courage to address the root causes of exorbitant health care costs. Transferring the risk via insurance and funding with taxpayer dollars does not address the real issue - the cost of health care. All of you who posted comments and those reading this one should demand their representatives seek solutions."

Said "GVA" in Baltimore: "My husband and I have SCHIP for both of our kids (both are teens) and we had it when they were younger. It has been invaluable to us. We cannot afford hospital and doctor's bills on our combined annual income of $50,000."

From Fred in Baltimore: "Shame on The Sun for plastering this propaganda piece on the front page. Opposition to this bill stems from the expansion of the program into $62,000 to $83,000 income families. The Sun took the bait beautifully here."

Two other below-the-fold Page One stories later received premium online play: a Sept. 28 article about the continuing impact of a young athlete's death on her teammates and an Oct. 2 piece that creatively mined letters to an Amish newspaper to describe how the Amish dealt with the mass killings at a Lancaster County school a year ago.

Ken Murray's Sept. 28 article, "Big promise, painful loss," about an incoming freshman UMBC volleyball player and her mother who died in a recent traffic accident brought this from reader Pat Stilwell: "Thank you for your compelling story about Maddie Bingaman. I didn't know her, but the picture of Maddie caught my eye and your story caught my heart. This is the sort of well-written story that keeps me subscribing to The Sun. Your writing made me stop and take the time to feel - something that the more clamorous media usually don't provoke or even allow."

Julie Scharper's Oct. 2 story, "Sharing Their Grief," was noted by reader Lee Nelson: "It was a great work of prose, compassion, scenery and hope. ... Getting into people's lives and telling their beautiful stories (sometimes sad, sometimes miraculous, sometimes inspirational) are definitely my favorites. I enjoy reading newspaper articles that put the human face on an issue or the type of wonderful storytelling you just did."

Not every human interest story elicits such strong reactions. But the combination of print and online editions shows how readers now have more chances to discover and absorb these kinds of stories.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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