Chocolate milk or the mayor’s arrest?

Readers liked the prominent photo of D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray getting arrested on Monday, which ran above the fold on the front page of Tuesday’s paper. But they were hopping mad that they had to jump to Page A11 to read the story.

Most readers who called or wrote said they were proud that the mayor and six D.C. Council members were willing to go to jail to protest a federal budget deal that many residents believe shortchanged the District and reminded them again about how little real representation they have in Congress.

But in a heavy news day with two strong front-page stories on the federal budget, another on Pakistan and the CIA, and a fourth on long-term seismic instability in Japan, most readers felt that the fifth story on the front page, about chocolate milk in schools, should have appeared elsewhere or been held, with the arrest story starting on the front page. Readers said they thought that The Post had disrespected the mayor’s efforts by putting the story on A11.

Ann Loikow, a longtime subscriber and statehood activist from the District, put it this way: “I thank The Post for putting his photo on A1, but to put the story on A11, and then chocolate milk gets front-page coverage? It should be front-page news when the mayor and half the council of the city in which The Post is located are arrested for protesting a very big issue here, which is how Congress treats D.C. and our lack of rights. It’s pretty appalling and shows that someone’s news judgment is a little bit lacking.”

Another longtime reader said the photo initially confused her. Because of all the hiring and spending scandals hovering over the mayor in his first months in office, this reader thought he was being arrested for malfeasance. She had to read the caption to see he had done something she liked.

What to put on the front page is one of the key decisions made at The Post every day and takes up a good part of the twice-daily news-budget meetings. It’s always a question of balancing national and local, hard news and soft, and among Virginia, Maryland and D.C. stories.

Here’s what Liz Spayd, managing editor, said of her decision that day: “I appreciate that plenty of D.C. residents feel like they’re pawns of congressional Republicans and want that story aggressively covered. Indeed we’ve had a couple stories on the issue.

“I went with two budget stories,” Spayd continued, “the main [one] on the actual cuts in the budget, and an enterprise piece laying out President Obama’s deficit plan that he unveiled Wednesday. The arrest of the mayor was captured through the lead [photo] — the right decision to me given that the essence of the news here was a photo op.

“I’m always looking for balance on A1. Consuming more than two-thirds of the page with budget coverage didn’t seem warranted on Tuesday. As for chocolate milk, that was a smartly done piece that I suspect attracted the interest of plenty of parents and probably more than a few kids. Indeed, on the Web, it was among the most-read stories that day, picked up on the Drudge Report and several other sites.”

I agree with readers on the Mayor Gray story. Normally I prefer a front page with one lighter, offbeat story. Newspapers, after all, are menus of varying offerings. But the mayor’s arrest story should have started on A1 with the two other federal budget stories. Were there aspects of the mayor’s protest that were symbolic and more about the photo opportunity than any real chance of swaying Congress? Sure, but it was still front-page news. The last time a D.C. mayor was arrested over representation in Congress and local budget control was Sharon Pratt in August 1993, according to a search of Post archives. Gray has pledged to keep the statehood and spending issues alive.

Now, the chocolate milk story indeed was sweet and nutritious, and it undoubtedly appealed to a broad audience of parents and children around the country, not just in the metro area. But the time element in that story was less important, and the story could have held for another day.

Finally, note Spayd’s comment about the milk story being popular on the Web. That is a growing factor in editors’ decisions about what’s important. Post editors can get hourly updates on how popular each story is online. But if the goal of The Post is to “get Washington right” and be the “indispensable guide” to this area, Mayor Gray’s civil disobedience should have been on A1.

This column was originally published in The Washington Post on April 15, 2011.

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