Thursday, July 13, 2006

Tornado Sweeps Away News Judgment At The Journal-News

Westchester Twister Fails To Rouse Gannett Suburban Mediocrity Out Of Its Journalistic Slumber
Residents in the tony suburban towns and villages of Westchester County, north of New York City, are more accustomed to reading about tornadoes than being hit by one.
So imagine their surprise when a funnel cloud made its way from the Hudson River near the Tappan Zee Bridge and across the middle of the county, leaving a lot of damage, rattled nerves but fortunately no injuries to speak of.
Sounds like a great story, right? Wicked weather that rarely hits the Northeast tears through the area without warning. Perfect fodder for the local newspaper to own this puppy, with lots of great photos, anecdotes and graphics. Then again, the newspaper is The Journal-News, the perennial underachiever in metro N.Y. journalism (full disclosure: I worked there in 1988-89 and left for greener pastures on good terms).
This is what the paper does, or is supposed to do, cover the big stories in its backyard, the kind everyone will be talking about tomorrow and which might actually spur higher sales the next day. At least on the former account, it fumbled badly.
True, most of the front page was devoted to the storm, but two of the three photos were shrunk down to the point of being irrelevant. The two stories on the front page should have jumped inside to be accompanied by a spread of sidebars and photos to showcase the damage. A double-truck spread in the middle -- make it up to the advertisers later, heaven forfend -- would have been appropriate for starters.
Instead, on A6, there is the continuation of a reaction story with two color photos, while a whole page of coverage on A8 had its three images in black-and-white. A dozen reporters were credited with working on the "coverage," yet The Journal-News could only muster the space for three stories and a tiny sidebar, along with a timeline for previous tornadoes in the lower Hudson Valley. A dozen reporters and scant evidence that few of them made it out of the newsroom.
If they had, maybe they would have gotten a good sidebar from County Executive Andy Spano, who related how a state trooper's car was picked up and spun around, as reported in The New York Times, which deigned to put the tornado story on page B3 and strangely, given the paper's heavy suburban readership, didn't even tease it on the front page. However, its photos of the worst damage by Alan Zale outshone those by three Journal-News photographers.
And the newspaper industry wonders why readers are abandoning them in droves for the Internet -- where the newspaper didn't fare much better. The Journal-News is exhibit A.
Now some of you in other locales might think I'm overreacting. Sure, it's a tornado, but nobody was hurt except for some roofs, trees and power lines. These things happen all the time, Steve, so chill.
Exactly, they happen all the time, except in places like Westchester. When a tornado passes less than two miles from my home and causes damage on streets I travel every day, I want to know anything and everything. So do my friends and neighbors.
Local TV stations understood this need. For example, Fox 5 had four reporters and a weathercaster up in the area doing live shot filled with lots of compelling anecdotes and tidbits that The Journal-News barely touched on, if at all. Case in point: the most severe damage was at a California Closets store in Hawthorne, where the walls collapsed.
The reaction story on the front page led with a quote from a woman who was interviewing for a job at the store and was trapped in the building, but escaped without a scratch. There's one quote from her. One. Doesn't that episode warrant further examination? We heard more from the woman, Tara Kelly, on TV. Why not The Journal-News?
That there's no good answer for that question has too often been the case at the newspaper, where the overlords are more content to kowtow to their Gannett chieftains whose priority has long been its shareholders rather than its readers. That's why the ads -- including the one unconscionably resting at the bottom of the front page -- are in color, while photos devoted to the lead story inside are not.
Perhaps not so coincidentally, Gannett released its second-quarter earnings yesterday -- down 8.3 percent. Among the reasons: higher newsprint costs.
If that's an excuse for why The Journal-News came up short today, it's a lame one, just like its tornado coverage.

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