Think Your Newspaper Has All the News That’s Fit to Print?

By Mike Feinsilber

So you spent an hour this morning with a first-rate newspaper—the Wall Street Journal,  Washington Post, or New York Times—and you think you have a pretty good fix on the important news of the day.

Sorry, you missed a lot. Even good newspapers are surprisingly selective about what news they print—and what they leave out.

That’s my theory, and to prove it I picked one day—Friday, October 11, 2013—to check out what news was and what news was not in the A sections of those three papers. I’ll offer some theories about this, but first the results:

Stories that were in all three papers:
—Washington’s fiscal crisis edges toward solution.
—Libya’s prime minister seized by militia, then released.
—Former Detroit mayor sent to jail for 28 years.
—North Korea replaces its hardline military chief.
—Judge nixes Christie bid to stop gay marriages in New Jersey.
—Alice Munro wins the Nobel prize for literature (the Post folded this news into an Alice Munro appreciation in its Style section).
—Snowden’s father goes to Moscow.
—Government’s fiscal crisis has wide ripple effect, empties tourist towns near national parks.

Stories in two of the three:
—OSHA had cited violations at the Texas fertilizer depot where 15 were killed in April. (Not in the Times.)
—Syria civilians bore the brunt of rebel fury, report says. (Not in the WSJ.)
—Iraq executes 42 prisoners in a week. (Not in the WSJ.)
—U.S. to let states open national parks and pay for it. (Not in WSJ.)
—Prison guards’ negligence blamed in death of Cleveland man who held three women captive. (Not in the Post.)
—Ex-Annapolis football players will be tried for sexually assaulting a female midshipman. (Not in the WSJ.)
—Pakistan rearrests ex-president. (Not in the Post.)

Stories in only one of the three papers:
—Federal agencies are looking for leakproof ways to release sensitive economic data. (Only in the WSJ.)
—China becoming the world’s #1 buyer of Persian Gulf oil. (WSJ)
—A Texas jury finds BP doesn’t owe compensation to people who said gases leaking from a refinery risked their health. (WSJ)
—A few colleges are experimenting with cutting tuition and student aid to streamline their finances. (WSJ)
—The percentage of Americans in poverty is stabilizing. (WSJ)
—South Korea indicts 100 in a scandal over nuclear reactor safety. (WSJ)
—Obamacare health exchanges are due an overhaul. (WSJ)
—Justice Kennedy is surprised by how quickly same sex marriage landed on the Supreme Court’s docket. (WSJ)
—WSJ/NBC poll finds GOP gets most of the blame for government shutdown. (WSJ)
—Russia is the target of a complaint before the World Trade Organization. (WSJ)
—In Syria, both government and rebel forces seek to control an area important to chemical weapons production. (WSJ)
—Israel frets that two of the three Nobel-winning scientists were Israelis who had emigrated elsewhere. (WSJ)
—African countries come under pressure to withdraw from International Criminal Court. (WSJ)
—A German bishop is under fire for spending $40 million to rebuild his residence. (WSJ)
—Britain seeks to crack down on illegal immigrants. (WSJ)
—Morocco shuffles its cabinet. (WSJ)
—Death toll hits 309 in migrant shipwreck. (WSJ)
—Clothing exports soar in Bangladesh despite string of accidents. (WSJ)
—In 2009, a CIA chieftain suspected Snowden was trying to break into classified computers. (NYT)
—New Jersey quashed a corruption case against a Christie ally. (NYT)
—Paul Ryan is back in forefront among House Republicans. (NYT)
—European parliament gives award to girl who had been shot by Taliban. (NYT)
—Mother to visit son held in North Korea nearly a year. (NYT)
—Norwegian investigated in Kenyan mall siege. (NYT)
—A fifth person indicted in killing of former Lebanese prime minister. (NYT)
—Security Council seeks to stabilize chaos-torn Central African Republic. (NYT)
—Myanmar, no longer a pariah, now a leader at East Asia summit. (NYT)
—U.N. rejects criticism of way it selects and trains peacekeepers. (NYT)
—International observers find rampant fraud in Azerbaijan election. (NYT)
—The death of 300 migrants off coast of Italian island raises questions in Berlin over —Germany’s treatment of asylum seekers. (NYT)
—Jewish settlers in West Bank deface a mosque. (NYT)
—Russian space chief fired after a series of rocket failures. (NYT)
—Student in Finland stabs four. (NYT)
—Rabies kills 24,000 Africans a year because vaccine costs so much. (NYT)
—Responding to corruption, Malawi president dissolves her cabinet. (NYT)
—Kochs split with other conservatives over Obamacare strategy. (NYT)
—The financial situations of cities is improving. (NYT)
—Syria TV analysts had a stake in the fighting’s outcome. (Post)
—20,000 barrels of oil spill from a pipeline in a North Dakota wheat field. (Post)
—Negotiators far from agreeing on a residual U.S. presence in Afghanistan. (Post)
—The number two civilian in the Pentagon is stepping down. (Post)
—Biological dad of Cherokee girl settles with family that adopted her. (Post)
—Afghan officials say they were trying to recruit the Taliban commander when he was snatched by the U.S. (Post)
—Typhoon causes Kerry to cancel trip to Philippines. (Post)

Some caveats: I didn’t include obits or business or sports stories or local news. That means a story in the A section of one paper may have sneaked into the business section of another.  I didn’t include workups—analyses, situationers, interviews, profiles, and the like. Just hard news, although it didn’t have to be this-happened-yesterday news. I did include stories that were only briefs in some of the papers, but given fullbore treatment in others. And this exercise was based on the printed papers that came to my doorstep, not their ever-changing websites.

It is possible that a few of these stories (like the Koch brothers’ split with other conservatives) appeared earlier in one or two of these papers, so the papers that ran them on Friday were simply playing catchup.

Some observations: It astonishes me that only 13 percent of these 59 news stories appeared in all three papers. The omissions would not be so surprising if the papers were from hinterland cities.  In these hard times for newspapers, many owners and/or editors across the country have decided that their fate rests with playing up the news that readers will not find elsewhere. In other words, local news.  Out goes a squabble in the state legislature, in comes the week’s school cafeteria menus. (This priority to local news isn’t a new idea. Google won’t point me to a source for this, but my memory tells me that William Randolph Hearst, emphasizing the importance he perceived in running local news, told his chain’s editors, “A dogfight on Main Street is worth a revolution in China.”)

Check out a display mounted every day by the Newseum in Washington to examine today’s front pages from every state. On most you won’t see a story that isn’t local. Local news is what sells, most newspapers have concluded.

Newspapers are thinner than they used to be. They don’t have the advertising to sustain as many pages as they used to. So the news hole is smaller and has fewer stories.

This analysis shows that newspapers, logically enough, play to their audiences in choosing what stories to run. It’s unsurprising that the Post favors news of government and politics, the Journal news about the economy, and the Times, with its worldly audience, carries much news from around the world, Hearst’s edict notwithstanding.

And there may be less forethought in choosing what gets printed than you might expect. If there’s a pattern, it is this: the Post selects stories with a politician’s eye (How will this affect the Hill?), the Journal with a businessman’s eye (How will this affect the markets?), the Times with a historian’s eye  (Does this matter in the long run?).

Maybe the Post editor who picked a wire story on the 20,000 gallon oil spill on a Dakota wheat field is an environmentalist. Editors who select stories are human.  And other things factor in: If a newspaper is spending big money to send a reporter on a foreign trip with the secretary of state, it is going to find space for her story, even if she’s only reporting that he called off a visit to Manila because of a typhoon.

So, my conclusions:

No newspaper prints all the news that’s fit to print (the Times’ front-page claim).

Papers have their own take on how to handle news, another reason to get your news from a number of sources. The Times did its follow-up on the sinking of a boat loaded with migrants with a picture and a 20-inch story out of Berlin about German politicians demanding a change in Europe’s policies toward asylum seekers.

It’s never been easier to be informed, but it takes time. And it takes going to more than one source of news.

Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach. He was a deskman, reporter, and editor, and he covered Congress and 18 political conventions.

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