Working to tell national/foreign news on Page One

The Baltimore Sun

Because The Sun is trying to spotlight its local and regional coverage on Page One, editors have become increasingly selective about placing national and international stories there.

Major breaking national and foreign news still makes the front page, but daily developments in important continuing stories usually don't. Assuming many readers already may have absorbed the day's headlines from reports on the Internet, radio or television, editors are generally looking to add depth and relevant context when they place these stories on Page One.

When it became clear that President Bush was likely to veto legislation extending the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP), Sun reporter Lynn Anderson was assigned to write about a Baltimore family of six that qualified for the benefits after two of the children were seriously injured. As a result of the benefits the Frost family avoided financial disaster.

Anderson's Sept. 27 article ran on Page One, as did an Oct. 6 analysis by Washington bureau reporter Matthew Hay Brown that examined the implications of the Bush veto. Then, on Oct. 10 Brown wrote a front-page follow-up about nationwide criticism of the Frost family - where critics claim they were too affluent and should have not been entitled to SCHIP benefits.

These stories are good examples of how The Sun brought fresh insights to an important national story.

The Sun, however, has been less successful in spotlighting the issues in two other recent national stories: the alleged misconduct by Blackwater USA, a private company under contract to provide military and security services in Iraq, and the revelation of secret Bush administration memos that authorized the CIA to use harsh interrogation techniques that some consider torture.

Blackwater USA has been a continuing story since a Sept. 16 shootout at a Baghdad traffic circle left 17 Iraqi civilians dead. A day after the event, reader Michael Mammon expressed frustration. "How could The Sun not put the story about Iraq banning Blackwater security contractors over the deaths of civilians on Page One? It was an important story that serious readers expect would get the attention it deserves."

Since the story broke, the newspaper has published more than 20 news articles (including briefs) about the multifaceted Blackwater story. Several of these stories were offered for the front page but were not chosen.

In my view, the newspaper had a number of opportunities to place the Blackwater story on Page One. On Sept. 26, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates called for U.S. commanders in Iraq to discipline private guards. On Oct. 3, Congress debated whether to end immunity for security contractors while the president of Blackwater USA defended his employees at a hearing.

Any of these developments could have made Page One, especially if they were reported by The Sun's Washington bureau.

Reader Sarah Gitler said early last week: "I don't think The Sun has given enough attention to the Blackwater story. This is a part of the larger issue about the United States' extensive use of private military contractors in important military roles in Iraq."

Marcia Myers, assistant managing editor for national/foreign news, said: "Deciding how to best use our own resources is a constant challenge. Our priority is to have reporters concentrate on original enterprise stories that readers won't find elsewhere."

A recent example of this kind of enterprise reporting was Sun Pentagon correspondent David Wood's Oct. 11 front-page article, "Civilian deaths costly for U.S." This article documented how the inevitable collisions between Iraqi citizens and the U.S. military are keeping the United States from winning the vital support of the Iraqi civilian population.

The story about the secret Justice Department memos that authorized severe interrogation tactics - after the department had declared torture "abhorrent" in 2004 - was broken by The New York Times. The Sun subscribes to the Times' news service, so this article was available for publication here, but because this lengthy article moved late in the news cycle and without special notice, The Sun regrettably failed to use it.

This story generated significant reaction in Washington and across the country the next day. Sun editors were very interested in a strong second-day report, but the Times initially moved only a short follow-up article that was published inside The Sun. Later in the evening a better and more comprehensive version moved, but was not noticed by editors, and Sun readers never were offered a detailed article.

The reality is that Sun editors must weigh many factors when deciding what goes on the front page and inside the newspaper every day. The choices they make will affect how readers judge the quality of the paper they rely on to report and explain the news.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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