Pope's death was a challenge for The Sun

April 10, 2005|By Paul Moore

WHO SAYS newspapers are old-fashioned?

The Sun's handling of the death of Pope John Paul II offers insight into the extraordinary ability of modern newspapers to respond to major news.

In just a few hours, editors redeployed a foreign correspondent to Rome, dispatched additional reporters to Rome and Poland, sent other reporters and photographers to churches in the Baltimore region and across the nation.

As the pope lay near death last weekend, a task force of production and editorial managers mapped out an array of plans to add pages and sections to the paper, depending on when the pope might die.

Because of the pope's declining health, a plan for covering his death had been prepared.

But Pope John Paul died Saturday - a time that was a particular challenge.

The size of the Sunday newspaper requires that some sections be printed in advance. Changes in the structure of the "main" newspaper are harder to make because of a large number of color advertisements.

The paper had committed to publishing an 18-page "Baseball 2005" section and the highly anticipated NCAA men's basketball semifinals were being played late that evening creating deadline issues for the sports department.

And daylight-saving time was to begin overnight, which required earlier than normal deadlines to ensure that newspapers were delivered on time.

Editors, reporters, photographers, artists and designers worked through the day and into the night to report and prepare and update stories about the pope's life and his impact on Catholicism and the world.

In the end, Sun journalists filled eight inside pages in the Sunday A section - including an extra editorial and commentary page - with coverage of the death of John Paul II.

An extra eight-page section, "The Life of Pope John Paul II," also was produced. Other sections adjusted their content and deadlines to help.

That was just the beginning. The tired Sun journalists had already begun planning a major "second-day" package.

Adjusting the Monday edition to add a John Paul II section was even more difficult. The Sun's press capacity limits the newspaper to six sections and the Monday edition already had scheduled an Orioles Opening Day section and a separate Automotive section.

Accommodating a John Paul II section meant combining the Metro and Today sections, which for technical reasons also meant eliminating color on the weather page and the Metro and Today cover pages.

Reporting an extraordinary news event and shaping the paper on the run to present that reporting effectively is a situation fraught with the potential for what newsroom veterans describe as a "train wreck."

There was no train wreck at The Sun. The paper's coverage was remarkably comprehensive, rich with detail and color and carrying no major errors.

Not everything in the Sunday and Monday papers cycle was flawless - readers noted a misspelled Latin phrase and several mistakes in historical detail - but reader reaction has been largely positive.

"I think The Sun's coverage of John Paul's passing has been quite wonderful," said Eileen Finnegan. "The scope was so widespread and deep. I plan to keep these papers forever."

Retired Sun editor John Plunkett, who views the newspaper with a critical eye, wrote: "The Sun's presentation of the life and death of John Paul II was outstanding. The reporting, writing, editing and graphics in both sections were excellent. You and the staff deserve high praise for one of the greatest editions in Sun history."

One reader disagreed: " I am sick and tired of reading about the pope and disgusted with The Sun's coverage. It makes him out to be a saint and barely notes any of the serious problems that surfaced during his tenure, especially the abuse by priests."

Foreign editor Robert Ruby praised the articles, especially those by correspondent Todd Richissin from Vatican City. "Richissin's lead story for Sunday went into the paper with virtually no editing," said Ruby, one of the most experienced and demanding editors at The Sun.

And, a number of readers were confused by the Monday adjustments.

Jim Rutter said: "I'm very concerned that The Sun is making more changes without telling readers. Trying to read the weather map without color is impossible."

Rob Crockett wrote: "Please let the decision-makers at The Sun know that if they combine the Today section and the Maryland section again as they did today I will cancel my subscription. I have endured all the changes thus far, but this was just too much."

The Sun failed to explain to its readers why the newspaper was changed Sunday and Monday. A "to our readers" notice with that information should have appeared.

After an explanation, Rutter relented. "You made the right choices because the John Paul sections were excellent and made your newspaper really special."

Indeed, last weekend's newspapers affirmed the vital role of the press in the national discourse.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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