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Ombudsman

What's Behind Above-the-Fold Play

By Michael Getler
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page B06

One of the complexities of this job is to figure out which reader complaints or observations should be dealt with in the Sunday column. Sometimes it's very clear, when many readers -- by that I mean dozens or more -- write independently and with originality about some subject. I don't include orchestrated e-mail campaigns in that category. But there are other times when only one or two readers write about something that strikes me as interesting about journalism, and that, too, can make a column. This is one of those columns.

On Jan. 26, 37 American troops died in Iraq, 31 of them in a helicopter crash. It was the deadliest day of the war. The story was on the next day's front page, above the fold. But above that story, stripped across the top of the page, was a story about a new personnel system at the Department of Homeland Security that could eventually change the way civil service workers are paid, promoted and disciplined at all federal agencies.

Michael Getler is The Post's ombudsman. He can be reached at (202) 334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com, or c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20071.

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Last Wednesday, the story of the summit meeting in Egypt between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, at which they pledged to halt attacks on each other's people, was also on the front page, above the fold and with a big picture. But above it, across the top of the page, ran two other stories. One reported that the Medicare drug benefit may cost $1.2 trillion and dwarf the original administration estimate. Another laid out the blueprint for a bigger, more powerful government as part of the Bush second-term agenda.

The Iraq and Middle East stories, at the time, were displayed with big headlines at the top of the front page in most of the other major daily newspapers I look at regularly. My instinct would have been to do the same thing. I viewed these as news events with more than the usual dose of impact, and ones that at least had the potential to become more important with time. The few readers who wrote or called, mostly about the Iraq casualties, felt the same way I did. I think readers generally believe that what is at the top of the front page represents the paper's best judgment about what editors see as the most important story of the day, or that they have to offer.

On the other hand, it's a complicated and subjective decision, made more so these days when newspapers face circulation challenges and when many readers already know at least the basics about the big stories during the course of the day from television, radio or, increasingly, the Internet. The advantage for newspapers comes with more time and resources to provide in-depth reporting.

But is it better, when you have other good but not widely known stories, to showcase those, enhancing the idea that the paper is also giving readers something new, something the competition does not have yet?

Post editors note that both the Iraq and Middle East stories were well-displayed with big headlines and were unlikely to be missed by readers. And in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian summit, a story reporting what was planned led the paper a day earlier.

Managing Editor Phil Bennett put it this way: "It strikes me that part of measuring news value on A1 is recognizing that we are not doing so in a vacuum. This means that something that is both new and important to readers of the newspaper may deserve more prominent play than another story of high news value that may be otherwise familiar to our readers, either because (as in the case of the Egypt summit) we have previewed it in prior A1 stories or because the great majority of readers do not use The Post as their sole source of information. We must balance our goals of being authoritative and credible with our recognition that there is new in news."

Executive Editor Len Downie added that most of the 37 killed that day in Iraq died in an apparent accident and that the story was prominently displayed. The change at Homeland Security, which has now been followed by something similar at the Defense Department, "was a historic change of great interest to many, many of our readers," Downie says. And the Medicare cost story by Ceci Connolly and Mike Allen, and reporter Jim VandeHei's "brilliant description of how Bush is growing government to the dismay of many conservatives," he adds, "were of greater importance to our readers" than the also well-displayed, but also previously covered, possible cease-fire in the Middle East.

The story headlined "Medicare Drug Benefit May Cost $1.2 Trillion" did draw reaction, but for a different reason, from the White House press office, which issued a statement calling it "flat wrong because it does not take into account savings to the government from premium payments, state payments and savings from the Medicaid system." The real figure, they said, was $723 billion.

The Post story actually reported all that. The official budget analysis does show a cost just a fraction under $1.2 trillion, which is where the Post headline and lead paragraph came from. Then the story pointed out the new offsets the government said would bring projected net costs down to $720 billion or so. National editor Michael Abramowitz said, "We thought the $1.2 trillion figure was significant, and worthy of placing in the headline, because it was the actual number in the official White House budget documents estimating the cost of the prescription drug benefit."

My sense is that the $1.2 trillion number may have proved a little too irresistible. It is a big, new escalation and technically true. But you could also argue fairly that it is misleading because it doesn't reflect the projected net cost. Capturing both in a headline and lead would have been better, but difficult, especially in a headline. On the other hand, given the history of escalating and suppressed costs of this program, the higher figure may turn out to be the right one for those around in 2015.

Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com.


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