The Herald Bulletin

Morning Update


November 18, 2012

Scott Underwood: Home-grown journalism judgment day

— Newspapers are organic. That is, they are nurtured by their environment and adapt different characteristics according to conditions and changes in the market.

The organic quality of newspapers is particularly striking whenever I have the privilege of judging a newsroom contest. I recently had the opportunity to judge two categories — overall news reporting among large weeklies and general excellence among small dailies — in a statewide contest. (Judges remain anonymous, so I can’t disclose which state contest I judged.)

The differences in the design style and news, sports and features content among the entrants — about a dozen in each category — were intriguing.

Most of the newspapers focused on institutional reporting; that is, they published lots of stories about government meetings, tax issues and public infrastructure. Such coverage is sometimes referred to in the journalism profession as “spinach” reporting, giving the readers what they need, rather than what they might want.

We’ve long suspected that such reporting generally attracts a small, dedicated core of readers but that most people’s eyes will glaze over as soon as they come to rest on a board of zoning appeals story, for example. Website page views seem to confirm this long-held assumption. Of course, if there is an element of controversy thrown in, the popularity of “spinach” articles soars.

One of the newspapers I judged in the general reporting category eschewed the traditional approach to institutional coverage, instead relegating institutional stories to the realm of briefs. The bylines articles in this newspaper, instead, focused on the local arts scene, tourism, restaurants and the like.

The approach of this particular newspaper grew organically from its environment, a mid-sized resort town with considerable wealth. The quality of the writing was excellent in a literary sense, flush with metaphors and symbolism. Even the design of the publication felt more like a literary magazine than a traditional newspaper.

In contrast, I ran across two small daily papers which did no reporting in their samples (three issues) on arts and entertainment. One of these publications devoted an average of three pages of space in each issue to articles written by people from the community in areas of expertise — local history, gardening, etc. This, I’m sure, reflected a local interest in the topics of choice.

Likewise, the various newspapers I judged took drastically different approaches to sports coverage. One seemed to have a fixation on local volleyball, while another covered youth softball/baseball better than any paper I’ve seen. Another small daily devoted very little space to local sports, publishing just one page of sports news (out of 12), with almost all of the articles coming from The Associated Press.

Whenever I judge these contests, it causes me to reevaluate The Herald Bulletin. We try to offer a solid foundation of local, state and nation/world coverage daily across the disciplines of news, sports and features. Our local environment, I believe, has fostered this approach. But I’m always interested in hearing from you: Are we using our resources in the best way to give you the newspaper you need and want?

Editor Scott Underwood’s column appears Mondays in The Herald Bulletin. Contact him at or 640-4845.


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