Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sometimes It's Clear

Part of my job is overseeing our corrections column. Normally I hear from the aggrieved, but today I got a call from a guy with a radio talk show who asked about a story we ran Saturday. Actually, he was asking about the story because we had run a really minor correction to it.

The story concerned a new trial ordered in a 1996 murder case in a prominent suburb. Our mistake concerned a current use of the historic building where the crime occurred -- we said there were many things there, including a restaurant, but there actually is no restaurant. One had been planned, but it never opened.

That mistake didn't draw people's attention. What did get them talking, the host said, was the order of a new trial. They hadn't seen the story Saturday, even though it was very prominently played. They knew a new trial had been ordered because it was mentioned in the clear, through the "A story Saturday about the ordering of a new trial..." throat-clearing manner of Clearing the Records. Then they were calling up the host saying, "Why was there a new trial?" (I don't think he had seen the story either, so he wondered if I could tell him what it was about.)

Well, beat me with a switch, but when a Clearing the Record item gets people's attention more than the actual A1 story, I'm left scratching my head. The headline was prominent and accurate, and mentioned the name of the previously-found-guilty party, as did the Clear. While the lead was in the third paragraph, it wasn't a story that one had to read past the jump to find out what was going on -- it was all laid out pretty quickly.

It was a summer Saturday, so maybe no one read the paper or checked the Web site. Of the three local papers I get at home, one doesn't even publish on Saturdays. So maybe the people who are saying "The world will get along just fine without newspapers" have a point. But clearly it was read in the corrections column during the week. So that's not it.

One answer I can come up with is that the Clears, like News in Brief items, are -- brief. Yes, people read them to see how we've screwed up again. But they're also bite-size -- we try to write tight corrections. Still, I don't think that's the main point.

Most days we publish Clears. We publish them every day in the same place -- on the fourth page of the A section. Thus, they're something predictable, like the weather, the comics, the sports agate.

I'm sure it looked differently at the time to an adult, but when I was a kid, newspapers had a wonderful predictability to them. Not just in the comics and the TV listings, but in the narratives. Every day there would be a story about whatever they were doing perfidiously in Moscow. Every day there would be a story about what the president did. (Alas, every day there would be a story out of Saigon as well.) On the world stage, there was a set cast of characters -- Charles de Gaulle, Willy Brandt, Kwame Nkrumah, spade-bearded Walter Ulbricht -- who appeared regularly. There would be reports of accidents and fires, much like the previous day's report of accidents and fires. There would be, in TV terms, the mini-series, like Bobby Baker. And then there would be the specials -- the Coliseum explosion, the Evansville Aces plane crash, let alone the Kennedy assassination -- that would rivet one's attention.

The newspaper, in that sense, was comforting at the same time it was provoking. There might be a report about Mongolia, but it would be presented as news of a far-away land of which we know nothing. The newspaper "habit" that was a fixture in American houses was in part seeing what was "new," but seeing it in the context of what wasn't -- which was most of what you read. You checked your team, your stock, your crossword, your funny pages, your police blotter, your Berlin Wall. For other amusement, you might check the society column or, for those who enjoyed it, the Personals ads. ("Tom. Come home. All is forgiven. Jane." Followed by: "I am not responsible for any debts incurred by persons other than myself. Tom Smith.")

Yes, people do that online, and yes, in many of the same ways. But before everyone had broadband, newspapers had already chucked many of the habit-forming aspects. Not in the comics, which are still with us, and not in the business and TV agate, which fell to the Web. But it can be hard to make an attachment to ongoing themes in the news. It's the downside of today's enterprise-and-insight-driven newspapers: We cover a story, try to do it thoroughly, offer enlightenment, and then, having done our job, move on to the next story.

People develop habits because the same thing satisfies their needs time and again. Newspapers, often run by ADD-afflicted personalities wanting to cover the world and looking for what they don't know, want to not do the same thing over and over. Thus, amid the onslaught of a world of unrelated chaos, people find out about a story through the corrections column, because it's there for them every day.

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