Daily Imperfection

Ombudsman

May 09, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

Newspapering is an imperfect march to perfection: a step forward, a step back, a step to the side, and all the while the marchers asking, "Are we getting any better?"

Progress is made. But priorities may change, clash or seem askew. Readers have different interests. Legitimate newspaper goals, for example to make money and report the news, may conflict. Editors get some results they don't seek. How much should papers lead, how much should papers just record events?

Ambiguities exist on papers. Tense news people work in offices that only look placid. They write some headlines "bigger than the events" (author John Galsworthy) and work harder on short stories than long ones. They joke about facts getting in the way of good stories but jam stories with them and sometimes biases, too.

Are we getting any better? Yes and no. We ask that here at The Sun, especially in a year of change. Reporters and editors are making gains in covering crucial social issues and jumping on breaking news stories.

Staffers worry about fixing weaker or just-fixed areas. It's in their patterns to search inside as well as outside for things wrong.

Conflicting interests flourish. Here's another:

The Sun begins new community news sections for Howard, Anne Arundel and Carroll counties, and has earlier deadlines because of complicated press runs. The amount of local news is up. This makes many readers happy, but hurts others who don't get Oriole and other baseball games as before. Like your body's daily mineral requirements, baseball games are a basic minimum requirement of a daily newspaper. The Sun falls short some nights.

Some Anne Arundel, Howard or Carroll county readers want a community news section with only their county news. Some other readers eschew such "parochial" news and want Baltimore and state news. Mixing community and state news or changing the play and size of the same story can be annoying. Two sections would be best (same for the sports/business section), but they aren't likely soon.

Harford County callers feel they're getting less news than when they had a Sunday Sun tabloid until last fall. Readers ask about The Sun's original plan for Harford and Baltimore Counties and Baltimore City to get their own separate sections. All this is on hold, partly for economic reasons.

Questions arise about other things.

Some older readers enjoy the big type used on some stories for older people reading county sections, then ask, "Why not do more stories in that easier type?" Good question, but that might lead to fewer stories taking up more space or more costly space, a typical newspaper dilemma.

The newspaper editorializes and writes news stories about the dangers of certain guns, tobacco, liquor and gambling. It bans classified gun ads because that's a small step to control crime. But some wonder about cigarette, lottery and liquor ads (far fewer than in the past).

When some comics were dropped last summer, dozens of readers said, "No, drop Bizarro instead." Later when Bizarro was stopped, almost 100 Bizarro fans went nuts and said its replacement, "Pluggers," was as funny as a mudslide. Sometimes the paper changes its mind, but not this time.

Editors use dramatic photos to draw readers into stories, but pictures sometimes focus eyes away from stories so much so that some readers don't read them. Three unrelated examples that recently stirred passions were an intimate photo of a black and a white lesbian, a photo of three admitted car thieves whose friend was shot by a policeman and four black California high school students. The stories were about health protections in the age of AIDS, the three youths' version and an alleged California sex club of mostly white high school students.

The shrinking presence of The Evening Sun as a separate newspaper continues to draw regular fire: it is delivered too early, it has little or no fresh local news, and it's the same as The Sun, except for columnists, editorial and opinion pages, comics and some out-of-town news. I see no signs of reversal in its benign neglect.

The papers often mirror society, like the fixation with sports and TV. The Sun is all over the athletic exploits of high school students. The fine coverage outdoes many papers of its size. Space for academic achievement, not an easy-to-see race or game, is minimal by comparison. Hundreds ask me questions or complain about TV and sports. Few ask about academic achievements and books.

Ernest Imhoff is readers' representative for The Baltimore Sun.

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