Everyone's a Journalist
By Massie Ritsch
Massie Ritsch is managing editor of Princeton's campus newspaper, the Daily Princetonian.
The crowning of Princess Snowflake wouldn't be big news at most metropolitan newspapers, but last December a 4-year-old from Hopewell, Virginia, got her 15 column-inches of fame in the TAB, a new supplement to the Richmond Times-
Every Tuesday, the newspaper of Virginia's capital city inserts a full-color tabloid that covers cultural, social and sporting events in the greater Richmond community. But not a word is written by Times-Dispatch reporters. Instead, it is "a publication by the community for the community."
Copy and photographs are submitted by a cross-section of Richmond's citizenry — public relations representatives, scoutmasters and team mothers. The layout, copy editing and advertising are handled by the newspaper's staff.
Reader reaction to the section has been positive, according to the Tab's editor, Melinda Spencer. "We only hear nice things," she says, adding that she has been "flooded" with copy since the supplement was created last October.
The Tab's staff was recruited from the newspaper's administrative, advertising, circulation and promotion departments. Times-Dispatch business staffers produce the Tab while continuing to work at their current jobs. The new section's editor and a graphic designer are the only staffers who are paid for the extracurricular effort.
But the lack of overtime pay isn't the main objection to the TAB in the Times-Dispatch newsroom. Some news staffers worry the Tab's fluffy features might jeopardize the paper's credibility, or that community contributors might fabricate stories just to get their names in print.
"It gives the impression of being a news product," says Times-Dispatch Ombudsman Jerry Finch. "Readers are not going to make a distinction."
Spencer admits that differences between the Tab and the rest of the news-
paper are lost on most readers. But she says the Tab's staff has taken precautions to prevent the section from becoming an advertorial supplement. Stories seen as hyping an organization, team or event are toned down, and submissions that blatantly advertise are rejected, she says.
Spencer adds that she has been surprised by the caliber of submissions to the Tab, though she is concerned a bit by the fact that much of the section's copy has come from professional public relations writers. She says she foresees having to limit copy from press agents so as to allow community members more space for their submissions.
Times-Dispatch Managing Editor Louise Seals says newsroom staffers were concerned enough about the Tab's copy being written by nonjournalists to call a staff meeting, after which an arrangement was made to have TAB headlines preapproved by the paper's editors. The newsies and Tab staff are now "coexisting very well," Seals says.
While complaints may have tapered off, some members of the community remain critical. Executives at a few of the Richmond area's non-daily suburban newspapers, who see the new insert as direct competition, feel the 212,000-circulation Times-Dispatch created the Tab to invade the traditional turf of smaller papers.
"The T-D is trying to create a vehicle that is very much like the small community publications that ring the city," says J. Malcolm Pace III, editor and publisher of the Hanover Herald-Progress, a twice-weekly paper in Hanover County, north of Richmond. Pace says with the non-daily community market making up one of the brightest spots in the newspaper industry in recent years, he can understand why the Times-Dispatch started the Tab. "Many of the dailies see there's gold in them hills," he says.
Describing the Tab as still in an "embryonic" stage, Spencer says she is unsure whether it will expand as a result of its initial success. Seals, for her part, seems to think the Tab has earned its rightful place in the paper.
"I think that there's a lot that goes on in the community that we — and any other metropolitan newspaper — cannot print," Seals says. "Maybe this is a way to stop saying no to so many people about things they want to see in the newspaper."