It's a recurring question and one worth revisiting: Why do some stories never make it onto the front page when, in the minds of some readers, many of those that are selected are of dubious significance?
Let's look at decisions about two stories -- the deaths of six firefighters in Worcester, Mass., and the jury's verdict in a civil lawsuit brought by the family of the late Martin Luther King Jr. -- that never reached Page 1 and why a third -- the drive-by shooting of a 73-year-old black woman whose vehicle had apparently been followed for miles by two white men in a pickup truck -- didn't make it to the front page as quickly as some readers would have liked. All three stories received extensive attention in other media, including local television news, cable TV networks, talk radio and the Internet. When readers obtain the news elsewhere, they question The Post's priorities.
The editor in charge of the Page 1 story conference brings to the table a set of personal preferences about news, as well as assumptions about what readers want or need to know. But the seven stories that comprise the front page on most days should be "a menu of the most important stories and also have some diversity of subject and approach without being trivial or completely off the news," said Leonard Downie Jr., the paper's executive editor. On any given day, one can question -- and some Post staffers join readers in regularly questioning -- whether Page 1 meets this goal.
The slaying of Germaine Clarkston in rural Maryland was a local story that some readers said seemed to be a throwback to 30 or more years ago, when blacks in the rural South were terrorized and sometimes killed for sport. "It brings the past back and should have been put on the front page," one reader said. "I believe this is a civil rights case." The Post, however, saw the story initially as another crime story with lots of unanswered questions. And, because the Metro section is so filled with crime news, the unfortunate truth is that reporters and editors are sometimes numb to the potential news possibilities of yet another assault or death.
Clarkston died on Monday, Dec. 6; the first story ran on B7 on Dec. 8. That day's front-page stories included NASA's "approach to interplanetary explorations" after the Mars lander failed; the results of a federal probe into the death of a teenager during a gene therapy experiment; Clinton administration plans to intervene in lawsuits brought against the gun industry; an effort to recruit more foster parents; a trend in Internet marketing; the D.C. Council's approval of financing for development above the Gallery Place Metro station; and the first installment of a series on Argentina's economy.
In general, The Post plays it cautiously when it is not sure about the motives behind a crime. That may be especially true when an incident may or may not be a hate crime. "We don't want to mislead about what the meaning of a particular crime may be by putting something on Page 1," Downie said. When two men were arrested and the FBI announced that it was launching a probe into civil rights violations, the story went to Page 1 on Dec. 10. Among the selling points, said Milton Coleman, the deputy managing editor in charge of the Dec. 10 front page, was more details. But by that measure, one could argue that the next day's more substantial story, based on interviews with the suspects' relatives, friends and neighbors, deserved to be on Page 1 rather than B1 because it had even more details than the Dec. 10 story. Did editors too quickly lose interest in this local story?
I'll continue this discussion next week. In the meantime, you may contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 334-7582.