How stories, editorials come to be

May 03, 2001

How stories, editorials come to be

This past Wednesday, Terry Headlee, executive editor of Herald-Mail and I and Mark Kraham, news director WHAG-TV 25, spoke at a Hagerstown-Washington County Chamber of Commerce "Eggs and Issues" breakfast on reporting and commentary.

Moderated by Tom Riford, a former member of the county's Economic Development Department, the session covered a variety of topics including: How editors choose which stories to cover, how the newspaper develops editorial positions and whether the money that advertisers spend affects what gets covered.

Headlee told the group that most stories are generated by reporters who work on different coverage areas, or "beats" as they're called. Those, and phone-in tips are the paper's greatest source of story ideas, Headlee said.

Editorials are usually written based on the stories that are being covered. So, for example, if a top government official is fired, that will likely prompt an editorial after I and Publisher John League meet to determine what questions should be asked, and based on the answers, what our position should be.


No, what advertisers spend doesn't affect what gets covered - and not covered. Both broadcast and newspaper officials said that the ad sales departments are far removed from the news-gathering departments, and aren't influenced by them.

All three of us tried to emphasize the need for people trying to get news stories on the air or into the newspaper to make themselves known, so that when something happens, for good or ill, they have already have some credibility with the news people.

What no one asked, because we've come to take our freedom for granted, is whether government officials had ever intimidated the news people into dropping a story.

Speaking just for myself, I've been lobbied to drop a story, but never threatened in any way. Some journalists in other countries are not so lucky, which is why today has been declared World Press Freedom Day by the Newspaper Association of America and the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Both those groups count 200 as a year of as progress, because only 26 journalists worldwide died last year in the line of duty. That's down from 75 in 1995, according to Eric Newton, former managing editor of The Oakland Tribune.

Most journalists who die are not just accidental casualties of war or earthquakes or whatever calamity befalls the country they're in, According to Committee to Protect Journalists, they die because they're assassinated.

They're targeted because they're investigating corruption and other crimes, but they persists because they have a passion to tell the truth. My own role in journalism, by comparison, is certainly not heroic, but I celebrate those who do put their lives on the line by recalling this quote from James Madison:

"To the press alone, checkered as it is with abuses, the world is indebted for all the triumphs which have been obtained by reason and humanity over error and oppression."

And speaking of people who deserve our admiration, this week the Easter Seals Society honored Gary Batey, general manager of the St. Lawrence Cement Company, for his firm's financial help in making the Hagerstown Break-Away adult day center one of 10 "Centers of Excellence" in the U.S.

Located in the Potomac Towers complex at 11 W. Baltimore St. in Hagerstown, the center is one of the first to receive dual licensure for both a medical and social center.

I've visited the center, which provides a variety of programs and medical services for the elderly and the disabled, and must say that those who were there seemed to be enjoying themselves and the fellowship they received. For more information, call Stacey Sutton, the director, at (301) 745-3828.

Recently readers have asked some questions which I can't answer, which I pass along in the hopes that someone else will reply. They include:

- Why are there no hands on the clock in the Clock Building on Hagerstown's Pubic Square? The latest story was in July 2000, when owner Kurt Cushwa Cushwa explained his difficulty in finding affordable parts to repair the clock.

- When Anderson Cleaners in downtown Hagerstown closed, someone asked me why another cleaner couldn't be recruited to open at the same site. A sillier question, perhaps, but what happened to the cast-iron statues of polar bears that graced the window for more than 20 years.

- Recently on U.S. 40 West, the sign marking the "Old Trail Steak House" fell down or was knocked down. As long as I've been I've been in town - 25 years - I've never seen this eatery open. Can someone give us some history?

Bob Maginnis is Herald-Mail's editorial page editor.

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