Thursday, Sept. 28, 2006 | People are so funny. They have no idea how a newspaper does its job. Wednesday, stripped across the top of the Union-Tribune’s Letters page, were letters whining about some of the U-T’s recent choices for front-page stories.
One griped about the huge front-page photo of Trevor Hoffman, the morning after he broke Lee Smith’s all-time major league record for saves. Another thought the front page should be reserved for international, national or statewide content. A third wondered about showing a photo of South Bay teachers on the front page, where the news of the day should be.
Reader annoyance with editorial decisions is an eternal, fascinating irony. The values and realities that editors use to make their decisions were not created by the media, or by the first newspaper publishers 500 years ago. Those values and realities were created by people, our ancient ancestors, dating all the way back to the caves, and we carry them still, every day, and we know what they are. News values are nothing more than categorization and measurement of the way people react to events, and those reactions began tens of thousands of years before the media came into being. In fact, the media came into being simply by adopting those values and turning them into a business. There are 10 such values in all, each measured on a strength of zero to 10. Every value is present in every story in the paper, each on its strength of zero to 10.
When an editor looks at a photo of Trevor Hoffman on the front page of Union-Tribune, he or she sees novelty (10), proximity (10), prominence (10), and sensationalism (7 or 8). Timeliness (7) and human interest (about a 6) are there, too, but the others are the big four behind the Trevor photo.
Novelty is the news value invoked by the unusual, the rare (Snow in San Diego! Aguirre Declines Comment!). Setting a record in major league baseball in America is an unusual event. People still talk about Hank Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s home run record. Setting a record for saves (yes, I agree, the headline “The Ace of Saves” was a reach) hadn’t been done for decades. Novelty ensured that the feat was noted in Monday newspapers all over the country, even three paragraphs in The New York Times.
There are two types of proximity: physical and emotional. Physical proximity means the story happened close to you. Hoffman pitches for the Padres, the home-town team. If he pitched for far-away Cleveland, the story would have been three paragraphs on an inside sports page. Emotional proximity is just that: the story is close to your emotions. Little guy vs. big guy, David v. Goliath, is the classic example, because in our lives we have all been Davids at some point, and we know how it feels.
When you read a David and Goliath story, you are reading it because of emotional proximity. The U-T did, this week, miss an emotional proximity story. In yesterday’s Letters page was a short letter, way at the bottom, that wondered why, in its Monday “This day in history” feature, the paper didn’t list the PSA crash here on Sept. 25, 1978 that killed 144 people. I don’t expect an actual story until the next anniversary year, 2008, but I did scan the pages, looking for a mention. When it happened, it was a 10-plus for all the values except progress, probably the biggest news story in San Diego media history.
Prominence is simple: big names make news. Trevor Hoffman is a celebrity, who achieved a novel feat, in his home town. And sensationalism, in its legitimate sense, refers to an event that is sensational. The biggest sensational story that I can remember is the farewell tour of the pianist Vladimir Horowitz. His performances were sensational, and they were noted in the media worldwide, as they happened.
My biggest personal sensational story is Steve Garvey’s home run (off Lee Smith, incidentally), in game four against the Cubs in 1984. You can ask anyone who was there (all 10 million of them) if they have ever heard a louder roar.
So if people know what these values are, why do they gripe about front-page content selection? They do it because of demographics. Every reader, from highbrow to sports fan, has his or her own list of stories they want to see. It forces editors into choices, which are usually based on another value, consequence: on any given day, which demographic represents the largest number of readers likely to react to this story? It would be good if the paper could get all the news in, every day, but the paper would weigh 20 pounds, they could never sell enough ads, and 90 percent of the content would go unread by any given reader.
Put me down, by the way, for more local news on the U-T front page. They are starting to do more of that, and this would be an improved community if they had been doing it for years.
Journalist, author and educator Michael Grant has been putting his spin on San Diego, and the city putting its spin on him, since 1972. His Web site is at www.michaelgrant.com. Or, send a letter to the editor.