Measuring local news

The front pages of The Star increasingly reflect the paper’s commitment to local news.

Several years ago, this column noted the large number of national and international stories on Page 1A of The Star. That has changed. The typical front page in June showed three local stories and one state or national story. During the period of June 15 through June 30 there were 47 local stories on the front pages and 20 other stories, 10 of them about Alabama.

The Star continues to carry state, national and world news, but the emphasis clearly is on locally covered stories in northeast Alabama.

An example of good community news coverage was The Star’s special section on Oxford’s 150th birthday. It was an attractive section with pictures by Bill Wilson, historic pictures from the archives and solid writing by Patrick McCreless, Phillip Tutor and Shea Zirlott (June 4, section C). Although its history and name link it to Anniston, The Star is also the daily community newspaper for Oxford and other Calhoun County communities.

Monday’s content

A reader told me she looked forward to Monday’s Star to read two front-page columns, “Business as usual,” by John Fleming, and Bill Edwards’ “Off to work.” These columns provide heft for The Star on Monday, the slowest news day in the week.

On two Mondays in June the business column was the lead story on Page 1A (June 13, 21). This is highly unusual. Traditionally, the lead spot on Page 1A is used for the most interesting or important news story on the page. A column is analysis and opinion. It is not a news story. This kind of placement can blur readers’ understanding of the difference between news and opinion.

Slanting the news

The story “No time like the present” (June 20) was an effort to project an optimism about the area economy that is not supported by the facts given. The article, by Laura Camper, was an analysis, not a news story. A news story reports what happened. An analysis seeks to explain the meaning behind the facts.

The president of the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, Sherri Summers, was quoted as saying business is “rebounding incrementally.” She cited no evidence for the conclusion. Anniston City Councilman John Spain was quoted as saying he thinks the local economy is rebounding because of “the amount of advertising he sees.” No data was provided. The article quoted Anniston Mayor Gene Robinson as saying the economy is poised to take off. He cited the clearing of the old Chalk Line property, plans for the airport expansion and that McClellan awaits development.

But the unemployment rate still hovers around 10 percent in Calhoun County, and data cited in the story shows that fewer business licenses were issued this year than in 2009 in both Anniston and Oxford. Only Jacksonville showed an increase. Plans for future development may well make a difference some day, but for now they are only plans. The opening of two new small businesses is cited as indicating a favorable trend.

Any new business is welcome, but two is hardly a trend. A community newspaper seeks to project a positive view of community, but not at the cost of slanting the news.

Some good journalism:

# “Wrecked riveria,” a first-hand report of conditions on Alabama coastal beach areas following the inexorable spread of the oil spill, by Tim Lockette (June 7, 1A).

# “Home match,” a look at northeast Alabama’s soccer community and its response to the World Cup, by Gigi Alford, with photos by Alford and Stephen Gross (June 27, 1A and 1D).

# A series of Father’s Day features, including personal views of fatherhood by five Star editors and fathers (June 20, 1B, 6-7C).

And some blips:

# An interview by Brett Buckner with the Rev. Sharon Watkins was cut off in the middle of the sentence at the end of the article (June 5, 6B).

# Sister Jane O’Connor, the new director of the All Saints Interfaith Center of Concern, was referred to as “O’Connor” in the second and further references to her in a story. The Associated Press Stylebook, the general style authority for newspapers, says the title “sister” should be used in all references to the names of nuns (June 13, 1A).

# A headline on a wire-service story read “Son of police chief killed in shootout.” The story said the chief’s son “gunned down a suburban officer.” (June 23, 7A).

# “Anniston man dies in motorcycle wreck.” It happened June 24. Why did it take five days for publication in The Star? (June 29, 9A).

This column was originally published in the Anniston Star on July 1, 2010.

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