When big news happens, deciding how to play it is usually easy. On Thursday, newspapers across the country fell in line upon learning Nelson Mandela had died.
Without question, Mandela was one of the most influential men of our time. Wire services anticipated his death for months and quickly filed obituaries that rose to the top of newspaper websites Thursday and front pages Friday. The Seattle Times, for instance, ran a Mandela story and picture across the entire top half of its cover.
We had similar plans, yet ended up running his story as the secondary element on our website and on Friday’s front page.
Why? We also were covering the deadly fire on Fox Island that killed a local doctor and his daughter. The tragic story gripped our community. Readers consumed every bit of news we could give them. We decided to lead with the local story.
A lot of factors go into deciding the play of any given story. A major factor is the news run of the day.
Frankly, if Mandela had died on a slower local news day, his obituary would have received a bigger treatment. A day earlier, we would have moved a soft feature about the Festival of Trees to the bottom of the cover and opened it up for the Mandela obituary.
However, The News Tribune also differs from other media — including some other newspapers — in our preferential treatment for local news. We’re the dominant news organization in Pierce County. Many stories in our paper don’t appear anywhere else. Research tells us that’s why people buy it.
National and international news is important, but readers find much of that in other places. We play most of those stories low on the front page or inside, and our goal is to go deeper or provide a fresher angle than our readers saw on TV the night before.
Our numbers appear to back up our local-first decision.
Using our website as an indicator of what interests our readers, national and international stories garner only about 3 percent of our traffic.
On Thursday, stories about the Fox Island fire were viewed 25,400 times. Mandela stories were viewed 596 times.
We redesigned our front page Thursday after learning of Mandela’s death. Rather than run a banner fire headline across the page, we reserved a wide column on the right for a respectful photograph of Mandela and a headline in all-capital letters to indicate its importance.
We’ll run many more stories about this powerful world leader in coming days. But our priority remains covering news that happens closer to home.
(The Newseum in Washington, D.C., collects front pages from across the country and posts them daily at: newseum.org/todaysfrontpages/default.asp.)
CHANGE ON OUR PHOTO STAFF
Over the years, TNT photographers develop followings in the same way as our reporters.
In coming weeks, readers will notice a change in our photographer lineup. Photographer Janet Jensen is leaving after 17 years to teach at the Tacoma Public School District’s School of the Arts. Jensen will be a great coach for the next generation, but we’ll miss sharing her pictures in our paper.
“Janet’s project work shed light on the human condition in ways that resonated with readers,” said TNT photo editor Joe Barrentine. “The work is staggering in its power and humanity.” Among the most poignant was a 2003 series about Dori Byron, a young woman living and dying with AIDS.
Jensen traveled to Cambodia, the Philippines, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka for stories. In 2010, she summited Mount Rainier to cover a climb by seven local women. She won many regional and national photo awards.
In Jensen’s place, we’re bringing back a familiar photographer. A couple of years ago, we asked veteran photographer Drew Perine to help us out on the copy and design desk. We’re excited to be able to return Perine to a full-time photo position.
Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434