We don’t like the ‘bad news’ any more than you do — or maybe not as much

By Larry Werner, Guest Columnist

Larry Werner

Larry Werner

A few weeks ago, I was having lunch in downtown Little Falls with Tom West, editor and general manager of the Morrison County Record, and Terry Lehrke, the paper’s news editor. We were discussing the gruesome case of Byron David Smith, who has been charged with second-degree murder for shooting and killing two local teenagers who had broken into his house.

Tom and Terry talked about how difficult it is to deal with stories about a local man killing local kids in a way that has been described by authorities and other media as “executions.” After shooting Haile Kifer and Nick Brady on Thanksgiving Day, Smith told police, he finished them off with shots to their heads.

If you’ve been to Little Falls, you know it doesn’t seem like the kind of place such newspaper stories happen. The coverage of the Smith case was followed on the Dec. 16 front page of the Record with this headline: “Morrison County Attorney’s office dealing with unprecedented number of murder cases.” In Little Falls?

Yes, and as I read through the other newspapers ECM publishes throughout the suburbs and Greater Minnesota, I see similar disturbing headlines:

“Man guilty of plot to murder county attorney,” reads a headline in Sun This Week by Tad Johnson, managing editor of our Dakota County papers. “Man wanted on warrants flees police, but is arrested, charged” — a story by Peter Bodley, managing editor of our ABC Newspapers in Anoka County. And on the front page of the Elk River Star News, Editor Jim Boyle has a story about “Two suspects jailed in Rush Avenue Fire.”

These aren’t your grandfather’s suburbs and small towns, it seems. The crime we used to associate with the core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul has turned our community editors into cops and courts reporters. And it’s a big adjustment. Is this what we should be spending our time and newsprint doing?

Anyone who has been in the news business for any time at all has heard this complaint: “All you focus on is the bad news.”

That wasn’t true for the dailies I’ve worked for, and when you see how little space we devote to crime in our weekly papers, it’s clear that most of what we publish has to do with the good news of civic life — charity fundraisers, holiday festivals, local heroes.

For example, below the story about a record number of murders in Morrison County is a photo of three law enforcement officers and this headline: “Morrison County deputies honored for lifesaving work.” I could point out similar “good-news stories” from our papers in Burnsville, Coon Rapids and Elk River. So why do people think we are obsessed with bad news?

It’s what readers notice.

I’ve always felt that we in the media get a bad rap for supposedly focusing on bad news. I can assure you that we don’t enjoy writing about larceny, violent deaths and other crime. And the space we devote to such stories, even though crime is increasing in our suburbs and small towns, is a fraction of the space we devote to covering the good news of community events and the neutral news about city councils and school boards.

Given that imbalance, I found it interesting to look at statistics compiled by Cory Hendrickson, ECM’s director of new media. He gave me a report on the top-viewed stories for 2012 on our 20 local news Web sites. He rated those stories based on page views — one page clicked by a Web site reader is a pageview.

Cory’s survey showed that after the big story in Little Falls, pageviews jumped dramatically – more than 200 percent from the week before the break-in and shootings to the week of the incident on mcrecord.com.

During 2012, seven of the top 10 stories on sunthisweek.com were about crime and courts. At abcnewspapers.com, six of the top 10 viewed stories were about crime, courts and crashes. And Elk River readers showed similar high interest in stories about the bad things happening there — seven of the top 10 stories were about such matters as auto accidents and arrests.

Within the news operations of ECM, we’ve been talking about crime coverage. We can’t ignore the bad things happening in the communities we serve with 51 newspapers and 20 Web sites. And based on Cory’s report on pageviews, it seems our readers want to know about such matters.

I’d be interested in what readers think about news of crime and courts.

Larry Werner is director of news for ECM Publishers. His e-mail is larry.werner@ecm-inc.com.

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