Gerber: Balancing local and national news

Gerber: Balancing local and national news

September 1st, 2013 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

Alison Gerber

Photo by Staff File Photo/Times Free Press.

It's a question every local paper must answer: What stories get front-page real estate?

What's more important - something happening half a world away, or something happening in Red Bank or Ringgold or downtown Chattanooga? We're a local newspaper, so local news is obviously our bread and butter; reporting the news of Chattanooga and the surrounding region is why we exist.

Yet we still receive feedback from readers who want more national news, who think the latest out of Washington, D.C., or the United Nations or Wall Street should be on the front page every day.

Just last week, I spoke to two readers who told me they want to see more national news on A1. Local news, one man said, ought to be in the Metro section. Everyone looks for local news in the B section, he said, period. And while you're at it, he said, keep football stories off the front page. People who want to know when the University of Tennessee names a starting quarterback can go to the Sports section.

We try to give readers a mix of stories on the front page. We try to cull the most relevant, most important or most interesting stories of the day from all our sections - including Sports, Business and Life - and also from the national and international wires. Some days, a football story may be in that mix. Today, for example, the Vols are on A1. After months of building anticipation over new coach Butch Jones, the Vols' season opener is one of the most talked-about stories of the week. Hence, it's on the front page.

And that's one of the criteria we use when choosing A1 stories - are people talking about it? If a lot of folks are interested in a story, bringing it up over dinner or with friends, that tends to make it news. Maybe not front-page news, though, because not every highly-discussed story will make our cut.

For example, Miley Cyrus' gyrations at the MTV Video Music Awards last Sunday night got plenty of discussion nationwide, with people wondering what the former Disney star was thinking with her performance filled by tongue-lolling and hip-swiveling (known as "twerking" in the language of the culturally plugged-in). Still, we didn't deem that important enough to make A1 any day this week. But we did place it as the lead story in our entertainment roundup on Tuesday's A2, when the chatter about it reached fever pitch.

On the very same day last week that I spoke to the man who didn't care for football, another reader remarked that he's tired of reading about Syria, that he saw coverage of the story on television and the Web and the paper and heard about it on the radio. Enough Syria, the man said, give me some news I don't already know about.

One of the biggest stories in the world this week has been that the Syrian government apparently used chemical weapons against its own citizens, prompting the high likelihood of retaliatory action by the U.S. government. Even Chattanooga's own Bob Corker, Tennessee's junior senator and the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said U.S. action was "imminent."

After two wars that have drained money, taken lives and pretty much made the United States war-weary, the prospect of military action in another foreign country is obviously a big story. It seems difficult to justify not placing that story on the front page.

No, it doesn't have as much local impact as other news stories last week - two deaths involving whitewater rafters on the Ocoee River or the trial of a 27-year-old Bradley County woman accused of murder and child abuse in the deaths of her 3- and 5-year-old sons, whom she left in a closed-up car on a hot summer afternoon. Those are undeniably bigger local stories. Yet the tense situation in Syria, with its possible far-reaching consequences, is too big to ignore.

The same goes for the 5oth anniversary of the March on Washington. Reporter Yolanda Putman added a local view of that event when she asked 10 area residents to share their opinion of what has happened in the five decades since the march. She also reported on the fact that Martin Luther King Jr. mentioned this part of the world in his "I have a Dream" speech.

"Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee," he told the hundreds of thousands of people gathered on the National Mall in 1963. Putnam's reporting is a good example of taking a national story and finding a local slice.

Some stories have an angle that resonates with Chattanooga-area residents. Others don't. But that doesn't mean they don't belong on the front page.

After all, we're a newspaper. Our job is to bring you the news, wherever it comes from.

Alison Gerber is editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com.