Giving Zarqawi His Due on Page 1

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By Deborah Howell
Sunday, June 18, 2006

Post editors used a forward-looking story that combined breaking news and analysis to lead the paper the day after Abu Musab al-Zarqawi was killed June 8. Some readers thought the story was underplayed and negative; others wanted straight news saying that U.S. forces had killed an important enemy.

Coverage of Zarqawi's death is a good example of how newspapers struggle to make fresh a story readers know about from radio, TV and the Internet for a day before they see it in The Post.

After much discussion, editors decided to use a story that didn't take the usual "first-day" approach. The story by Baghdad Bureau Chief Ellen Knickmeyer was topped by a two-column headline: "After Zarqawi, No Clear Path in Weary Iraq."

Readers seemed to miss the accompanying Page 1 story by Jon Finer, which told how U.S. forces found and killed Zarqawi. The second sentence in Knickmeyer's story and the third sentence in Finer's affirmed the event's importance. "A long-sought victory for President Bush, the U.S.-led military forces and their Iraqi allies, Zarqawi's death was the most significant public triumph since the capture of former president Saddam Hussein in late 2003," said Finer's report.

Some Post staffers also preferred a traditional approach with a bigger display. Vince Rinehart, copy desk chief of the editorial pages, said, "I like to hold history in my hands, and it was irritating to see it treated as old news."

But most readers concentrated on what they saw as negative spin. Richard Regan of Rockville said: "If I hadn't seen the TV coverage of jubilant Iraqis and proud military and political leaders, I wouldn't even know something positive had happened. On June 7, 1944, was your headline "After Normandy, No Clear Path for a Weary France"?

Arnold Kling of Silver Spring wrote: "This is the first time that his death appears in the written newspaper . . . yet the news is buried. The lead story really ought to be labeled 'news analysis,' and, under the circumstances, should not be the lead story. I conclude that (a) The Post no longer considers itself a newspaper . . . [and] (b) the spin the paper is after is the most negative spin possible."

How did other papers treat the story? Look at the Newseum Web site ( http://www.newseum.org ), which displays front pages from all over the country. The New York Times and the Washington Times stripped the news across Page 1.

Many papers went with an analysis -- among them the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal. Many lead stories -- and indeed President Bush -- said the long-range impact of Zarqawi's death is uncertain, which is what Knickmeyer wrote. Many newspapers also had stronger display and headlines. (The New York Daily News: "Smoked!")

David Hoffman, assistant managing editor for foreign news, said: "In the Internet age, we need to be cognizant of what readers hear instantly and what we deliver the next day. Ellen's was a reported, forward-looking piece, and Jon's was an excellent look back at how Zarqawi was caught. Both were added-value. Both were an attempt to get beyond the static, standard lead story. I reject the measurement used by your letter writers that news in Iraq should be seen as good or bad, positive or negative. We send reporters out to write what they see and discover. That's what Jon and Ellen did. That's why people want to read us the next day."

The Page 1 layout was complicated by the fact that an installment in the excellent "Being a Black Man" series was running and editors wanted to display it prominently above the fold.

Vince Bzdek, news editor on the News Desk, which designs the news sections, said: "We also made a very conscious effort that day to try to add value to a story that was nearly 24 hours old. . . . We tried to spin the lead story and headline ahead, to tell readers what might happen next. In fact, that was the main reason we didn't strip it across the top of the page or give it bigger play. The decision was a conscious effort to take into account the news cycle and to try to make the newspaper's coverage as relevant, timely and appropriately played as possible. We'd argue that it was indeed played as a big screaming headline when it broke -- on washingtonpost.com."

Milton Coleman, deputy managing editor, was in charge of the paper that day and said he realized "that for our regular readers, this may have been jarring. A big headline declaring his death may have been a nice collector's item, but would hardly have broadcast what our reporting had been able to learn since then."

My opinion: Editors were right to go with the approach they did. Knickmeyer and Finer's stories were chock-full of new information and included the view that the killing was a triumph for the United States. Tweaking the lead to acknowledge that and a headline and design with more oomph would have answered most complaints. That could have been accomplished by bumping up the type on the Zarqawi story or altering the layout of the black men series or moving it down the page a bit.

Of course, hindsight is always 20-20. Executive Editor Len Downie's idea -- a day late -- was to put the Zarqawi stories and photo in a box with a label headline such as "The Death of Zarqawi" at the top of the page and a secondary headline (sometimes called a deck) on the impact.

Some readers complain that Iraq isn't on Page 1 enough. A survey of a dozen big newspapers for Chicago Tribune Public Editor Tim McNulty showed that The Post, January to May, led all newspapers with 132 front-page articles concerning Iraq.

Iraq is not on Page 1 as often as it used to be, but The Post is spending more on covering the war than on any other story in the world.

Deborah Howell can be reached at 202-334-7582 or atombudsman@washpost.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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