Local Stories Take Back Seat

By: Joe Strupp

Take a quick glance at the Lubbock (Texas) Avalanche-Journal‘s front page these days and you’re apt to forget that the 56,920-circulation paper is the local news source for much of northwestern Texas. Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Page One of the A-J — long a font of information about Texas Tech University and events honoring hometown rock ‘n’ roll legend Buddy Holly — has been taken over by full-scale coverage of the nation’s war on terrorism.

“Before the [terrorist attacks] happened, we strived to be local,” says Editor Randy Sanders, a 30-year A-J veteran. “Now we don’t have that emphasis.”

The Lubbock paper is in good company when it comes to changing its focus. For most small to midsize dailies, whose top news stories used to have more to do with municipal government than with international relations, the war on terrorism has presented a tough challenge: to give readers enough information about the crisis without neglecting the responsibility to report local news.

“We struggle every day because we don’t have a lot of space,” says Sanders, who offers the recent suspension of a local sheriff as an example of the kind of story that’s been downplayed lately. “We have to examine the space every day.”

Sanders has removed skybox teasers on Page One to free up room for photos and headlines, while eliminating the “People” column on the second news page and replacing it with war-related news. In addition, the paper’s editorials — normally targeting school taxes and local development — are taking a turn to more patriotic and national issues.

The 47,011-circulation Billings (Mont.) Gazette is running as many as four additional pages each day to accommodate war stories, even as it gives some local issues less space. “They still get good play,” says Editor Steve Prosinski, “but they’re not the most important stories.”

For other similar-size dailies, the effort to keep up with the national crisis has meant reallocating staff to focus on war-related events. Ed Simpson, editor of The Joplin (Mo.) Globe, circulation 30,903, added three extra news pages at a cost of about $2,400 a day and reassigned one of his 12 reporters to a new homeland security beat, while another is now covering military affairs. “News that seemed so important four weeks ago does not seem so now,” he says.

Rob Dean, managing editor of The Santa Fe New Mexican, which placed two of its 13 writers on localized war-related coverage, agreed. “We haven’t stopped [other local] reporting,” Dean says. “It’s just a matter of prominence of play.” He says some local stories that would have been natural Page One leads for the 24,486-circulation daily are now given below-the-fold or inside treatment, citing the recent shooting by police of a woman who pulled a gun on her neighbors as an example.

Other papers have made changes on a smaller scale. The Express-Times (circulation 50,674) of Easton, Pa., added a second letters-to-the-editor page to handle the growing correspondence about the war — assuming editors will remain willing to open mail from strangers. The Janesville (Wis.) Gazette (circulation 24,617) devoted a recent kids’ page to information about Middle East countries and Muslim beliefs. “We’ve been looking for another story to beat it,” says Express-Times Editor Joseph P. Owens, “and it hasn’t happened.

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