On Page 1?

There is some validity to the charge that bad news outruns good news in the race for front-page play. As a newsman once pointed out, "It's not news that the sun rose this morning. If the sun doesn't come up, that's news."

For almost 15 years a small group has gathered across the street from the Soviet Embassy here about noon each day for 15 minutes of protest against the mistreatment of Soviet Jewry. Mostly the American protesters walk back and forth in quiet talk or prayer; on special occasions there may be a speaker or leaflets.

Until this month there were no arrests because participants carefully obeyed the ban against protest activity any closer to the embassy than 500 feet. And there was little publicity.

On May 1, 25 area rabbis demonstrated at the embassy entrance, and one result was a three-column headline, photograph and a story in The Post.

The news play reminded me of the voluminous news attention given to the demonstrators at the South African Embassy who have for almost six months appeared almost daily, protesting apartheid. There are differences, of course: one affects the majority population of a nation, the other a religious minority. But I believe that beyond this consideration, the newspaper interest was whetted by the celebrity demonstrators at the South African Embassy and their willingness to be arrested.

The demonstrations raise a question: Is there a news bonus for those who break the law?

News play may seem of little consequence to readers, but some demonstrators believe headline play weighs more heavily on the Soviet and South African governments than the actual parading protesters. As one sponsor put it, "Without newspaper coverage, it's almost as if it didn't happen."

Demonstrations protesting Soviet arrests, beatings, imprisonment and refusal to permit Jews to leave have become almost routine, editors say, while the South African picketing is still relatively new and therefore more newsworthy. Many of the South African arrests made the front page, while the rare Soviet protest arrests were on an inside page of the Metro section.

The comparison reminds that newspapers have difficulty dealing with long-running situations. Take the African hunger crisis.

In 1983 The Post ran a five-part series spread over dozens of columns with on-the-spot coverage in words and photos showing famine threatening the lives of hundreds of thousands. In 1984 there was a three-part series and 30 news stories, and early this year lots more attention.

Periodic series are one way to keep readers focusing on long-term problems, but they are expensive to produce, saturate news space for which many contend and sometimes bring complaints about the length from critics with short attention spans.

In this case, television really brought results in the Ethiopian famine. As Post staff writer Joanne Omang wrote, government and relief agencies had been talking about the starvation for years, but a snippet of British Broadcasting Corp. film showing "emaciated children huddled by the hundreds in squalid camps" broke the "dam of apathy."

When it was shown on "NBC Nightly News," Americans rushed to their checkbooks and released a flood of donations.

Is there a moral here -- for readers, for papers?

Not everything in a newspaper is of interest to every reader (and that may be fortunate because the hours between awaking and getting to work are limited), but if we want to consider ourselves informed, we have to attach ourselves to a good newspaper and count on it to bring before us the developments in the world.

The editors who find ways to keep important issues alive -- whether by an occasional series, anniversary articles, editorials or even human-interest articles on protesters -- help overcome the traditional question, "What's new about it?"

Causes, in Africa or on 16th Street, while lacking daily excitement, have interest to the community and impact on the world beyond. These struggles for human freedom are part of the mirror of the community and deserve to be reported.