Prom Baby Web Coverage: A Study in Contrasts

By: Steve Outing

Anyone who knows the Philadelphia (Pennsylvania) newspaper market knows that the Inquirer and the Daily News, both part of the Knight-Ridder chain, have very different personalities. The Inquirer is the staid and serious publication, while the Daily News is the outspoken tabloid that's not afraid to overplay a sensational story.

In between the two papers is Philadelphia Online, the Web site that serves as the online presence for two very different print counterparts. The separate and independent Web news staff takes content from both papers and fashions it into an online presentation that reflects both papers. It can be a difficult position, wedged figuratively and literally between the two newsrooms. (Philly Online's physical office space is on a floor in between the Daily News and Inquirer newsrooms above and below.)

At times, serving two masters presents some interesting ethical dilemmas, as was the case this week involving a sensational story about a New Jersey teenager who gave birth to a baby boy while attending her high school prom, but did it secretly in a restroom and discarded the newborn's body in a trash can, then went back out to the dance floor as if nothing had happened. She may be charged with murder. This is one of the more bizarre stories to come along in quite a while -- and is one that the Daily News decided to play to the hilt.

The Inquirer, predictably, decided to take the high road on this one, including making the decision not to publish the teenager's name or photo. The Daily News, on the other hand, printed her photo and identified her in its printed editions as 18-year-old Melissa Drexler. (Some other U.S. newspapers, including USA Today and the Newark Star-Ledger, also opted to identify Drexler.)

Independent editorial decision

Philly Online editors working on Monday night faced a decision about how to handle the story and the issue of identifying the teenager. Online editor Jennifer Musser says that after seeing the two papers' opposite stances on the issue, the Web news staff made the decision to play the story with some balance for its Tuesday pages. "We made a conscious decision not to play the story big," she says, even though the Daily News plastered it on its front page. Philly Online's "front page" included mention of the story, but it was placed far down on the page where readers had to scroll to see it.

If you viewed the Philly Web site on Tuesday, you would have seen two links to stories about the "prom baby" incident -- one from each newspaper; the Daily News story identifying Drexler and the Inquirer not.

In an unfortunate error, the Inquirer front Web news page (found inside the greater Philly Online Web site) for much of Tuesday did include a captioned photo of Drexler accompanying the headline and teaser to the Inquirer prom baby story. Online editors took the photo off the Inquirer's pages when they realized the error.

Philly Online editor Robin Palley says that the decision on how to play stories like this typically falls with the Web site staff, who are all "seasoned journalists." While there is no formal policy governing such matters, in general the Web staff can make these types of decisions without undue interference from either newsroom. Web editors attend newsroom story meetings for both papers, and respective print editors often suggest how a story or feature might be played on Philly Online. But neither newsroom has formal jurisdiction over news presentation on the Web site.

A difference in philosophy

Musser says that the two papers often cover the same story from very different angles, and it's up to the online staff to decide which paper's story to play more prominently than the other's, which sidebars to include, and whose links get used.

The same issue also played out in another celebrated local crime case, known as the Main Line Murder. A man accused of strangling his 29-year-old wife reportedly was cavorting with a stripper, spending thousands of dollars a week on the woman, and took out an insurance policy on his wife shortly before her death. The Daily News has played that story big for weeks, publishing photos of the stripper on its front page. The Inquirer, meanwhile, has taken a more subdued approach to covering the case.

Musser says that with that story, Philly Online "leaned in the Daily News direction" and gave it significant play -- beyond what the Inquirer has done -- because Web editors felt that it was such a compelling local story.


(Philly Online director Fred Mann, who was out of town during the prom baby coverage, says that the issue brought up by this case, of one paper naming a crime suspect and the other withholding that information, "is an issue that is worth some serious discussion before we adopt one paper's standard over the other's.")

Red Wings Rule in Philly!

Hey, what's that "Red Wings Rule!" logo doing on the home page of Philadelphia Online? The answer: the Philadelphia Flyers lost the Stanley Cup hockey championship to the Detroit Red Wings and thus Philly Online lost a bet to the Freep, the Web site of the Detroit Free Press.

Fred Mann explains that his Web site and the Freep site engaged in a bet about which team would prevail, with the loser forced to host the opposing team's logo on its home page for a week after the final game. The two sites, both operated by Knight-Ridder Newspapers, got together during the Stanley Cup series and linked to each other's coverage and discussion forums. Mann reports that the cross-promotion was successful in driving traffic to both sites.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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