Editors, readers might differ on what matters

December 05, 2004|By Paul Moore

The Sun has a long and proud tradition of foreign reporting. Overseas bureaus have been part of the newspaper's identity for decades. No other U.S. newspaper of its size makes a larger commitment to maintaining its reporters around the world.

A story last Sunday by Sun correspondent Gady Epstein about China's death penalty system is a recent example of the newspaper's strong foreign effort. The front-page article described how two men who had been wrongly arrested and then sentenced to death were exonerated and released just before their scheduled executions.

The story detailed the worst elements of the justice system in China, where as many as 10,000 people are executed each year. Through aggressive reporting and research, Epstein described police corruption, a system of arrest quotas with cash bonuses, beatings and torture, and the denial of counsel for defendants.

Why did The Sun pursue this story halfway around the world? Why did editors think it was important for readers in Maryland?

Epstein said in an interview: "As a rising power, China has succeeded in recent years in projecting a modern image as a maturing world player and economic force to be reckoned with. This is half of the picture, the half that our readers are most familiar with and which draws billions of dollars in foreign investment without strings attached. Stories like this help fill in the other half of the picture - that the vast majority of the Chinese people still live under the thumb of corrupt government officials who serve their own interests before the public's."

Sun editors are proud of their paper's ambition to thoroughly cover the world by offering readers unique enterprising staff-written stories such as Epstein's and a vivid on-the-ground report Friday from Sun reporter Douglas Birch on turmoil in the Ukraine.

But connecting readers to the world can be a frustrating challenge.

The Sun received only a small number of reader comments on Epstein's article, indicating it probably did not get a large readership. Was this because of the significant length of the article? Was the story overlooked because The Sun failed to provide adequate "signposts" - special-report labels, photos, maps - showcasing its compelling nature? Did it matter to readers that the story was written by a Sun correspondent and did not come from a wire service?

While the China story's impact was barely visible, articles about Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s directive to ban state officials from speaking to two Sun journalists clearly grabbed readers. That contrast spotlights an interesting challenge for journalists at The Sun and other papers with ambitious goals.

It is apparent that more consumers are getting their news from a combination of newspapers, television, Web sites and blogs. People make quick decisions about how much time to spend on a particular medium. Under these conditions, some of The Sun's most substantial reporting efforts, especially a story such as Epstein's China article, are vulnerable to being missed.

In fact, as The Sun and other newspapers look at themselves these days, they are discovering that what they see as vital is not always what readers find most important. Recent surveys indicate content that is often most satisfying to editors (investigative and enterprise reporting, foreign coverage and major series and projects) does not necessarily matter as much to readers.

Given the increasingly fractured media environment, ambitious metropolitan newspapers are seeking to strike a balance between meeting the needs of a changing readership and maintaining their traditional role by offering a rich variety of content.

Surveys and focus groups can help The Sun broaden its audience with fresh features and innovative news decisions, but editors can't afford to alienate longtime readers who represent the lifeblood of any newspaper.

It would be simpler and cheaper if the newspaper reduced spending on foreign coverage. There will always be budgetary pressures to do so. The potential loss in identity and sense of purpose, however, cannot be measured in savings or higher profit margins. The Sun's readers and the paper itself need to know that stories such as Epstein's China article will continue to be part of the newspaper's reason for being.

More than ever, editors need to feel confident that their experience and decisions are essential for producing a high-quality paper. That means sometimes doing things that will not be embraced or appreciated by the majority of readers.

And, sometimes, readers care about the world more than we suspect.

Doug Dribben - who passionately believes The Sun has been biased in its coverage of the Ehrlich administration - also had strong opinions about the China article.

"I found the information in the China article to reinforce my belief in the American legal system," said Dribben, a former prosecuting attorney. "I applaud Mr. Epstein on a well-researched and well-written article, and I hope that readers read it in the context of comparing it to our system, rather than an exposition of the isolated experience of two Chinese."

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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