Pre-Internet Thinking  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2006

Pre-Internet Thinking   

Why would the New York Times take a first-day approach to the Zarqawi story? Posted June 9, 2006

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Thanks to reporter Martha Raddatz's scoop, ABC News reported the death of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi at 2:38 a.m. Thursday. Not surprisingly, the story went on to receive saturation play on the cable networks and the Internet.

So what was the New York Times' lead headline in its Friday paper? "After Long Hunt, U.S. Bombs Kill Al Qaeda Leader in Iraq."

As the great Philadelphia disc jockey Joe "Butterball" Tamburro would no doubt ask, "Who Don't Know Dat?"

That's right. In a paper people were reading more than 24 hours after the news broke, the Times was going with a first-day headline and story. With a six-column banner, no less.

Talk about a missed opportunity.

This is not to take anything away from the Times' terrific coverage. As you would expect, it was all over this important development. Its high-impact front page featured two photos, a map, three stories (the news story, an analysis of what comes next and a how-they-caught-him piece) and a box with a small photo billboarding three more stories inside.

But the time is long since past when morning newspapers can pretend they are breaking big national and international news stories. They have to remember that their readers know what has happened. Instead, they have to do the things that newspapers do best: analyze what happened, put it in context, fill in the details, try to figure out what happens next.

The Times, of course, did all of these things. But that first-day head camouflaged the true flavor if its package.

The Washington Post, in contrast, recognized reality. It eschewed the traditional "something happened yesterday" story and led with an analysis of how Zarqawi's death might affect the future of Iraq.

Overall, the Times front-page treatment was much more impressive. The Post gave its analysis a two-column head, played a small picture under it, then displayed its piece on how the U.S. tracked down the insurgent leader below that. The page was dominated by the latest in the paper's "Being a Black Man" series.

But give the Post props for thinking clearly on how to approach the story in the Internet-and-cable era. It did something similar when reporter Jill Carroll was released, leading with an interview with Carroll instead of more traditional fare.

As circulation continues to drop, newspapers are spending a great deal of time and effort revamping their front pages, trying to make them more compelling and relevant in a crowded and competitive climate. (See Donna Shaw's report on this phenomenon in the June/July issue of AJR.) Papers are firing up focus groups, commissioning research, even asking readers to vote on what should go out front.

Well, here's some free advice from this one-man focus group: Don't lead the paper with 24-hour-old news.

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