Boston, Heritage juxtaposition makes for difficult news choices

Packet tries to balance big national, local stories

jkidd@beaufortgazette.comApril 22, 2013 

Newspapers such as ours, already intently local in focus, have tried to intensify that concentration — at least to the extent the current economy allows — as online operations grow in importance.

The logic is thus: All sorts of new and traditional media provide national and international news, but there are far fewer alternatives for local news. Ergo, it makes sense for us to spend our time directing readers to coverage of our geographic area, particularly online, where the universe is so large and competition for broad stories unwinnable for an outlet our size. (Exceptions would include our McClatchy Washington bureau’s recent coverage of the military drone program, but that was reporting no other national outlets had.)

But just as we come to embrace the new “rules” of the game — stop chasing our tails trying to be “first” on national stories — along comes the tragedy of the Boston Marathon and the ensuing manhunt.

This gripping news unfolded at precisely the same time as one of the biggest annual events in our coverage area — actually, the biggest event in our coverage area — the RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing. Here are some decisions we made about balancing coverage and the logic behind them.

• Because no one knew Monday the scope of these attacks and whether someone might attempt to replicate them at sporting events elsewhere, we decided that we needed to ask Heritage officials if security would be tightened during tournament week. We rewrote our story about opening ceremonies to include that question, then followed up the next day as more information became available for PGA Tour, tournament and local law enforcement officials.

• When huge national stories break, we’re on the lookout for local angles. By the same token, we don’t want to overreach for them because playing six degrees of separation tends to trivialize news of gravity. With that in mind, a few stories that seemed legitimate to us developed at the tournament — golfer James Discoll’s pledge to donate $1,000 to victims for every birdie he made, a poignant message during Wednesday’s pro-am from a one-legged golfer to blast victims, and how those with ties to the Boston area kept their focus Friday morning as police closed in on two suspects.

• In print, the Heritage would typically lead the paper throughout the week, but early on, we chose to favor news from Boston. We also decided the traditional cannon shot from Heritage opening ceremonies was inappropriate for Tuesday’s front page, given the carnage in Boston of the day before.

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• On Friday, we were confronted with a similar decision. We awoke to news that authorities had been in a shootout with suspects Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev and had locked down an entire town as they went door to door searching for Dzhokhar. We had planned a four-page Heritage wrap-around section— and sold advertising for it — for the Saturday paper. It was to include a full-page photo on the cover. On the fly, we decided to keep the wrap but add a skybox to the events in Boston.

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• The decision-making regarding online coverage Friday was equally vexing. The story unfolded throughout the day, along with the tournament’s second round. We had planned to run a story providing rolling Heritage updates in the lead spot on the Packet home page by mid-morning each day. Instead, on Friday, we left Boston news in place almost all day, moving Heritage updates in the lead spot later in the day and using the features of our new templating system to keep a Boston headline “above the scroll.”

Had the lockdown in Boston extended through the weekend, the decisions would have gotten more difficult, still. After all, Heritage rounds gain importance with each passing day, and the weekend round attract more spectators and, presumably, Packet readers. However, with Tamrlan Tsarnaev dead and his younger brother in custody late Friday, we went back to our new default settings in print and online — let local dominate.

I’m comfortable with the decisions we made and the play we gave two important stories, given the information available when we made them. That said, I’m eager to hear comments from readers. For instance, I’d like to know how much news about Boston you got from our newspaper or our website.

And I’d particularly like to hear from those who did get their Boston news elsewhere. Should we have focused on the Heritage? Or would secondary play to the events in Boston makes us too provincial — or even disrespectful — in your opinion?

Follow editor Jeff Kidd on Twitter at twitter.com/insidepages.

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