published Sunday, March 17th, 2013

Gerber: Interesting, important not always the same

It goes without saying that the pope is important. He oversees a flock of 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide, and a quarter of Americans are Catholic. The selection of a new pope — one from the new world, no less — was the biggest story worldwide on Wednesday. Pope Francis waved from the front pages of newspapers across the globe.

But here in the Chattanooga region there seemed to be more talk Thursday morning about Cee Lo Green taking the stage at the Riverbend Festival.

That’s the kind of decision newspapers make every day. What's more important to our readers? What should we put on the front page? What goes above the fold?

Online it’s easier to decide. We rotate stories through the top slots on our website all day. News that breaks at 2 p.m. displaces whatever happened at 1:30 p.m.

But the print edition is different. When we figure out what to put on the front page, we sometimes have to consider what's interesting versus what's important. In the newsroom, we refer to some stories as DBIs — reports that are “dull but important.” Those are the stories that in the past always made it into the front page. Why not? They're important, after all.

But in the digital age, important doesn't always sell. Online readers often bypass important and click on interesting (or even sensational or silly or just plain stupid).

An editor once told me newspapers give readers what the need to know. Problem is, what people need to know isn't always the same as what they want to know.

"If you're not Catholic, you don't care about the pope," one of my colleagues said.

But it's a big deal, said another. And many of our readers are Catholic, came another perspective.

It'll be old news tomorrow morning, another person said.

Old news or not, the pope was a dominant photo and story on most American front pages including big papers such as the New York Times and Washington Post. The story also played prominently in small papers in all corners of the country, such as North Dakota's Bismarck Tribune and Wyoming's Jackson Hole Daily. A scan of front pages at the Newseum's website Thursday morning showed the same photo of the new pope with a golden background used at paper after paper.

The debate over what story goes where isn't limited to the front page.

Last week, the Times Free Press ran a story about Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg's book at the bottom of the Life section. Some readers took exception to that placement.

“She doesn't rate a Business article?” a reader wrote. “A man writes that book, it's on the Business front. If Warren Buffett wrote that book, would it be on the Life front? Bill Gates? Even Mark Zuckerberg? Life? Nope.”

Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong (and when that happens, readers let us know).

Still we try every day to offer local news and national news, important news and interesting news and photos.

Before leaving the newsroom Wednesday night, I commented on the fact the new pope is a Jesuit. My colleague shrugged.

Later, he said this: “I might actually go to Riverbend this year. It'll be the first time in 10 years.”

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