Local enterprise and the Ravens a winning ticket

Public Editor

December 17, 2006|By Paul Moore | Paul Moore,Public Editor

Last week, The Sun produced a special series of articles about the abuse of ground rents - fees paid for the use of the ground under a number of Baltimore-area homes. The series, written by reporters Fred Schulte and June Arney, generated a groundswell of accolades from readers and promises from politicians to pursue legislation to correct abuses, in which unwitting owners have been forced out of their homes for missing relatively small ground-rent payments.

Such strong local "enterprise" reporting is the kind of journalism that reporters and editors live for. It spotlights significant problems in the community and suggests solutions.

These stories give readers what surveys say they want: compelling original reporting about important local issues. Significant coverage - including front-page presence - of the Baltimore Ravens' successful season along with profiles and narratives with a strong human dimension also are considered winners with readers.

Because The Sun and other newspapers are fighting to stop circulation declines and trying to attract new readers, offering an appealing array of unique, staff-produced stories for Page One is particularly important.

While powerful local enterprise is at the heart of a newspaper's mission, providing coverage and analysis of important national and international news is also vital. Some Sun readers are concerned that this window on the larger world is being reduced or occasionally pushed off Page One because of the enterprise focus.

The three-part ground rent series, titled "On Shaky Ground," was given very dominant play last Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.

Readers reacted strongly.

Jesse Schreier said: "This is an incredible series. I remember reading a few stories over the years about how a few people had been thrown out and lost their houses because they failed to pay their ground rents. But this series provides so much more depth and history. Thank you for devoting the time and the money to bring us this story."

Joyce A. Kramer said: "The Baltimore Sun's ground rents series is excellent in every way. I only hope it will have the needed impact on city and state legislators to correct the injustices that result from this system."

Anson McEwen said: "The `On Shaky Ground' series was outstanding and essential reading. But especially on Sunday's front page, I missed not having an article from somewhere else beside this area."

B. Reeves said: "I think there should have been something on the front page related to the Iraq study group's report."

Other readers have questioned the frequency and strong Page One play of recent articles about the Ravens' successful season.

"The Ravens seem to get too much notice on the front page. It feels very exaggerated," reader Mildred Cordish said.

For editors and marketers at The Sun, this strong Ravens coverage makes perfect sense. Sports, especially pro football, plays a major role in the lives of many area residents and when the Ravens win, single-copy sales increase by 6,000 to 8,000 copies and page views on the newspaper's Web site, baltimoresun.com, go through the roof.

"Our goal is to increase our overall audience," said Tim Thomas, The Sun's vice president for marketing. "We can only accomplish this by providing local news and information that out readers find to be relevant - which very much includes major Ravens coverage."

From my perspective, strong Ravens coverage is important, but I also agree with readers who have seen an occasional lack of balance on Page One.

The Dec. 1 front page was dominated by an article and a photo about fans' disappointment about a Thursday night loss to division rival Cincinnati. Even though some Sun readers would have missed the final score because it was a late-night game, the newspaper's play and headlines caused some to believe the Ravens had suffered an irreparable defeat, which was not the case.

Longtime reader Leonard Rauch found the lack of hard news on that front page disconcerting: "I was shocked at the choices. The big Ravens coverage, travelers seeking cheaper flights, cloned horses and a Baltimore County murder case connected to the TV show CSI. I'd like to think it was a one-day glitch."

To me, this page was an example of editors searching for the right Page One mix and falling short.

The continuing challenge for editors will be finding a balance that features excellent local enterprise like the ground rent series on Page One but also finds room for important news and analysis from farther afield.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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