During the summer, the number of calls and letters from readers drops appreciably. So, in the context of that lull, the calls and letters generated by two recent front-page stories amounted to a virtual deluge. What were you folks thinking? readers wanted to know. So this column and next week's will let you in on how editors view Page 1 these days. More specifically: what editors were thinking in deciding to place on the front page a story about certain sexual behavior in middle schools and to give greater prominence to a former street hustler's efforts to turn his life around than to the U.S. soccer team's victory in the Women's World Cup.
While the July 8 story about oral sex among children in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades mentioned sexual activity in schools in the Washington-Baltimore region, its focus was a particular episode that occurred last year at the Williamsburg Middle School in Arlington. Some readers, as well as some Post staff members, reacted by asking: What makes this news? Hasn't this sort of thing happened for a long time, if not forever? A national survey two years ago reported that 7 percent of high school students said they had sex for the first time before age 13. But key editors, especially those who are parents, applied the "Does it shock me?" test and concluded that, because they had been clueless, other parents were probably in the same boat and needed to be informed. The reporter, too, was convinced that this was an important story. "In my heart of hearts, it was a Page 1 story because it was the most in-depth look at teens involved in this kind of sexual behavior," the reporter, Laura Sessions Stepp, said. "We don't get enough of those kinds of voices prominently in our news coverage."
Stepp said she has heard from readers who were grateful for the information and wanted to know more. The ombudsman, however, has heard from readers who objected to the article's placement and to the use of "oral sex" in the headline. "Though the article was interesting," a reader from Burke, Va., wrote, "it did not deserve the promotion afforded it on the newspaper's front page." Via e-mail, a reader who lives near the Williamsburg school pronounced the article "sensationalist to the core" and said it raised these questions for him: "Why am I reading this? Why is this even being published? Why did these parents, kids and the school principal even choose to talk to a reporter? Why is the reporter listening? and Why is this on Page A1?" The mother of a third-grader felt betrayed. "We encourage our youth to become more informed and then see stories that no third-grader should have to read." The mother of a 6-year-old boy said that when he read aloud the headline " `Parents Are Alarmed by an Unsettling New Fad in Middle Schools: Oral Sex,' I almost fainted. I really did." Unlike some readers, however, she did not object to the story, but to the headline.
To understand how editors approached this story -- as well as the one last Sunday about the former street hustler who is now "going legit," as the headline proclaimed -- one must know that there is underway here a shift in philosophy about what makes a story news and what makes it worthy of prime space on Page 1. "We consider lifestyle changes to be news today," said Mary Hadar, the A1 features editor. The Williamsburg story, then, had two things going for it. First, it provided a look into youth culture, a subject about which this newspaper has been somewhat out of touch. Editors have been pushing reporters to come up with more stories about young people. Second, editors thought that the sex story documented a major lifestyle change.
I will continue this discussion in my next column. In the meantime, feel free to weigh in by contacting me at (202) 334-7582 or email@example.com.