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BY COLUMNISTS

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DOCUMENTS


The Tentacle


November 19, 2002

All the News That Fits We Print

Norman M. Covert

George Randall and the staff at the Frederick News-Post deserve lots of credit for producing a visually pleasing new product for Frederickís Sunday morning news stands. The layout and design break the mold of the staid old News and Post. Weíve needed a local Sunday edition especially since Hagerstownís Herald-Mail Co. gave it up as a lost cause.

One of the challenges, however, is that we wonder what the Randalls want the newspaper to be when it grows up. The packaging is good, but each dayís editions must contain news and information of interest to potential readers. The new columns are interesting but we look for better news coverage and improved news judgment. It cannot continue being a publication where all the news that fits, they print!

It was always a matter of some personal admiration of George B. Delaplaine, Jr., that he could sell the same newspaper twice in one day. He did that successfully for many years. Granted there were some limited updates and a new layout on the front page, but essentially the Frederick Post and The News were the same newspaper.

As far as we know, the News-Post is still one of only a few family-owned daily newspaper left in the lower 48. It was started by William T. Delaplaine, Sr., in 1883. After his death, his sons took over the business, bought The Evening Post in 1916 and maintained a respected newspaper. George Jr. is grandson of William T.; George Randall the son of George Jr.ís sister Frances.

About two years ago, the family disagreement between George Jr. and the late Myron Randallís heirs wound up with the Delaplaines selling out their interest. We understand that readership and advertising income were not improving and George had a good offer for Frederick Cablevision, which was Georgeís inspiration and a real success story.

My friend and colleague, George Jr., stuck to his guns for many years refusing to give up the afternoon daily when the national media trend was to shed the PMs. Many old-time newspaper flaks relish the thought of the latest edition with the hottest news in print. The television talking heads are so much fluff and we donít believe the news until we read it in black and white on traditional newsprint.

Fifty years ago, the Post and News were pretty good newssheets. The last 20 years the quality of both papers declined as it sought to change its image to a metro-type operation. Local news did begin to mirror big-city problems and exceeded the boundaries of the traditional small-town paper as our population exploded.

To their credit, the papers still publish the club news photographs, which means they havenít forgotten the old truism that "names sell newspapers."

Efforts to bring new life to the paper on a budget saw many good reporters come and go and a news viewpoint that mirrored the big city tabloids with a sensational edge on the front page.

But competition for the media advertising dollar, especially from the Washington Postís own Gazette Papers in the past decade, cut into Great Southern Printing and Manufacturing Companyís profit margin.

The recent election campaigns exposed the editorial weaknesses in both the News-Post and the Gazette. Potential voters wanted to read about candidates and issues, but both papers decided to choose both the issues and how they would cover them. Candidates with substantive campaign positions received little coverage.

The Gazette told candidates they "spiked" news releases on issues because its editorial board would decide the issues and ask questions each week of candidates. There would be no freebies and candidates had to buy advertising. From a business standpoint, that worked. Candidates paid big bucks for print advertising. However, voters were still confused when the primaries rolled around in September, probably due to the lack of good news coverage.

The newspapers covered the campaign shenanigans, but little on the candidates or issues. The News-Post did single stories on each candidate and a raft of overwritten pieces on the Hecht-Mooney District 3 Senatorial race, of which few had redeeming value to the voters.

Poor news judgment was shown in the Nov. 12 edition. It was striking that the News-Post sent a reporter to Washington, D.C., to cover the anniversary of The Wall, the Vietnam Memorial and gave it precedence over the annual Veteransí Day observance in Memorial Grounds Park. Apparently Julia Robbís good pieces on two veterans seemed enough to satisfy the obligatory topic.

Clifford Cumber, a good reporter recently hired from the Gazette, wrote a nice piece on the Frederick ceremony, but it was buried by the expanded coverage including a large photo and lengthy story of the D.C. event. Just one picture was inside depicting the local event, which was attended by nearly every local politician and elected leader. It had much more impact locally than the D.C. story.

There may have been a story announcing the local event, but I didnít see it. There should have at least been a box item on the front page Nov. 11, telling the time and place of the Memorial Grounds event, which has been held continuously since 1924. But the News-Post stopped doing that long before I came to Frederick.

Too bad that the editors didnít see any news angle on the well-attended ceremony in a park that is the center of a dispute of national proportions involving display of the Ten Commandments monument.

Too bad, the editors didnít see any opportunity for a sidebar related to todayís war on terrorism and the active duty soldiers from Frederick, who are deployed in Europe and the Persian Gulf in anticipation of a possible attack on Iraq.

Too bad, the editors didnít see any story angle on Col. David Lopez, commander of the 1108th Signal Brigade at Fort Detrick, whose command is a critical component for deployed U.S. Forces. Cliff did a nice job covering Colonel Lopezís remarks.

It is our hope that the revised lineup of Bob Harper, Nancy Luse and Doug Tallman in the top editorial slots will begin to make a difference. But they receive direction from the "front office" and must be empowered to influence better news judgment and use of reporters.

Writing and editing must be crisper and tighter in order to cover the news on a broader scope. We understand that ad space determines editorial space and thatís where the editing comes in. The new layout takes away precious column inches with "air" and "white space" and bylines with email addresses.

In speaking to journalism classes this year, it is obvious that they are eager to start, many believing they will be highly paid news anchors. But none of these J-school students will be an improvement on todayís pack journalists unless the experienced news flaks like Bob, Nancy and Doug can hone the new talent out on the "beat" and insist on good legwork and good writing.

We have high hopes that the News-Post can succeed as it once did, but it will take a return to high standards of journalistic ethics, better writing and editing and better news judgment to make it more than just another pretty face.



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