Scott Stanford is general manager of the Steamboat Pilot & Today. Call him at 970-871-4202 or email sstanford@SteamboatToday.com
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I got a message Tuesday from an anonymous caller complaining about our front page.
The caller was blunt in his assessment, so let me paraphrase what he said: "How the heck could you put a picture of a girl with a horse on the front page of the newspaper when 33 people died at Virginia Tech University? How dad-gum stupid are you?"
To answer the latter question first - the level of my stupidity is relative to who you ask.
As to the former question:
The shootings at Virginia Tech were the worst in U.S. history. It was the dominant news story on the vast majority of newspaper front pages in the country. Yet, Steamboat Today's front-page story was about miscommunication between dispatchers and police in reference to an April 3 party that nearly destroyed a Steamboat house. Our lead photo showed a woman walking a horse in a pasture. On our front page, the only reference to the shootings was a small photo and tease to the story on page 14.
Not that we ignored the Virginia Tech story. We got the story on our Web site before 10 a.m. and linked to updating reports and video from the Associated Press. We sent out a breaking news alert to cell phones and e-mails. For 14 hours, the Virginia Tech shooting was the top story on steamboatpilot.com.
There is a terrific Web site - newseum.org - maintained by the nonprofit Freedom Forum where you can view newspaper front pages from around the world. Newseum also maintains an archive of front pages from major news days, including the Virginia Tech shootings. I scanned more than 300 U.S. newspaper front pages from Tuesday, curious to see what other newspapers did. The dominant photo and story on nearly every one was about the Virginia Tech shootings. Usually, huge headlines - "Massacre," "Campus Carnage" and "Rampage" were the most common - told the story of the day and minimized anything else on the page, if there was anything else on the page.
A small percentage of newspapers - particularly those in the Northeast, where a major storm caused widespread flooding - made another story the dominant package, but still got the Virginia Tech story somewhere on the front page.
Newspapers of the size and shape of Steamboat Today are "tabloids" and typically focus on a single story and photo on the front. Almost every tabloid I saw focused on the Virginia Tech story Tuesday, including the Aurora Sun, a free newspaper on the Front Range that is very similar in circulation to ours.
I reviewed 306 daily newspaper front pages from Tuesday morning. Here are the seven that handled the Virginia Tech shootings in a similar manner to Steamboat Today: the Opelousas (La.) Daily World, the Kerrville (Texas) Daily Times, the Everett (Wash.) Herald, the Conway (N.H.) Daily Sun, the Poughkeepsie (N.Y.) Journal, The Mississippi Press of Pascagoula, Miss. and the Port Huron (Mich.) Times Herald. The Wall Street Journal mentioned the incident in its news briefs on Page 1. The Christian Science Monitor made no mention of the shootings.
Sebreana Domingue, managing editor of the 11,000-circulation Opelousas newspaper, said the Virginia Tech story was never a consideration for her front page. There were four local stories on the front and the centerpiece package was about filing taxes. The front page included a small photo and tease to the Virginia Tech story on page 3.
"From our standpoint we are a local, local, local newspaper, and we hardly ever have any national news on the front page," Domingue said. "My thought process was we had a tease on the front and the story on page 3. I felt like, for our readership, that was right."
Poughkeepsie, at about 40,000 circulation, is the largest newspaper I saw that didn't play the Virginia Tech story big on page 1. To be fair, Poughkeepsie was dealing with major flooding, evacuations and rescues from the storm that hit the Northeast over the weekend.
"If it was any other day, we probably would have gone big with (Virginia Tech)," said Stuart Shinske, the Journal's editor. "As it happened, we got killed with a big Nor'easter, one of the worst storms this area has ever seen. Thousands evacuated their homes."
Poughkeepsie is a broadsheet newspaper with room to run four, five or even six stories. What the newspaper chose to do is make the storm the only package on the front page, with four photos and two stories. A tease to the Virginia Tech shootings ran at the top of the front page.
Shinske said his staff was unanimous that the storm was the story of the day.
"Our decision was based in part on the fact that we couldn't compete with TV. The New York stations were all over the Virginia Tech story, going back and forth between it and the storm," Shinske said. "In no way did we mean to downplay what happened at Virginia Tech. But one thing we realized is that by the time we came out, whatever story we had would be old news."
I'm with Shinske on the point about TV. It's something we talked about in our newsroom. Most print newspapers, including the Today, did not have the shooter's name by the time they went to press Monday night, but by Tuesday morning, TV had a name and photo.
In my nearly six-year career here as editor, we have turned the front page over to major national news only twice - on Sept. 12, 2001, and when the war in Iraq began on March 20, 2003. When the Columbine shootings occurred in 1999, the incident was the dominant tease on the front page of the Today. The story ran on page 9.
Even if the news is not fresh or local, some readers expect their newspapers to document seminal events in history on their front pages. Tuesday's front page, I suppose, reflects our judgment that the Virginia Tech shootings did not qualify as such an event.
I'm curious what others think about Tuesday's front page and more generally, when it is appropriate to play a national story on page 1. If you have thoughts, call or e-mail me.
Scott Stanford's From the Editor column appears Thursdays in Steamboat Today. Visit his blog at steamboatpilot.com/stanford, call him at 871-4221 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org</p>