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March 29, 2007

Good Journalism Can Be Pretty Too

It's safe to say that the trial run for the Star Tribune's vast redesign last year has come to an end. When the Star Tribune scrapped it's traditional design last year in favor a bolder, simpler and easier-to-read design that looks a lot more like USA Today than the New York Times, there was a lot of buzz about what the implications would be and what it says about the direction of modern journalism.
Some expressed concern that the increase in graphics, photos, charts, graphs and anecdotal news clips would get in the way of quality news coverage. Others expressed optimism that the more accessible layout would keep the paper competitive in today's increasingly crowded media landscape.
Now that I have been a regular reader of the Strib for several months, I'm ready to weigh in.
Firstly, there is no doubt that the new design is more aesthetically pleasing. It's easier to read in that the headlines and story summaries jump off the page in bolder, better-featured text. But does that take away from the quality of coverage? I would argue that it doesn't ... Sure, stories may tend to be shorter in an effort to cater to attention-deficit readers, but a good journalist should be able to write a quality piece in less than 20 inches anyway.
Also, the redesign has featured a bi-weekly World section that delves much further into international affairs than the paper ever did before .... That, in my opinion, is a sign of responsible journalism. Colorful maps of the world don't hurt anyone either, afterall, who doesn't need to hone their geography knowledge a bit?
Finally, I am going to go on record as a fan of the "Have You Heard?" section that appears on the front page each day. For those unfamiliar with the section, it is a small green block of text that usually includes four or so blurbs of current-events information that don't merit an entire article in the paper. Think of them as "Water Cooler" topics for the news junkie. In response to the critics who call this form of anecdotal journalism a dumbing-down effect, I say, What's wrong with interesting journalism that gets people talking? In today's paper, for example, we learned that the Marines are banning tattoos below the elbow and knee in new recruits; that children see an average of 21 food ads a day, more than 40 percent of which are for junk food; and that a World Health Organization study found that circumsized heterosexual men are 60 percent less likely to contract HIV. While all interesting, and something one might share with a friend or co-worker, they aren't exactly fluffy. Each have the ability to spur an important public dialogue. For example, The Marines policy touches on the conservative mindset of our military today. The junk food ads likely link directly to the U.S. epidemic of child obesity. And the circumcision study could lead to new policies and efforts in the global fight against AIDS.
Of course the journalist in me would much prefer that Americans spend the time to read an entire article on each of these topics instead of a simple sentence, but today that is not our reality. The "Have You Heard?" section is our reality. Newspaper people need to embrace that if they want to keep their papers alive. Thank God the Star Tribune did.

Gonzales' Defiance Won't Do

One of the biggest stories of the past month was the unexpected firing of eight U.S. attorneys by the Justice Department. The controversery centers around whether the firings were done for partisan reasons and how involved Attornery General Alberto Gonzales was in the decision. The on-going story has been great fodder for 24-hour news broadcasts, whcih have attacked the story like hyenas and fed it to the public in pieces of soundbites and beaurocractic rhetoric. The story also has unraveled on the front pages of some of the country's most influential newspapers. Most recently, the Star Tribune reported Tuesday that a key aide to Gonzales will opt for the Fifth Amendment instead of testifying in a congressional hearing about the firings. By invoking the Fifth Amendment, a tool to avoid self-incrimination, the aide has signaled a concern that wrong-doing did occur.
The Star Tribune article quickly moved from the aide's news-making decision to Gonzales' recent TV appearance in which he sought to deflect criticisms and deny any improper conduct. The article reports that Gonzales repeatedly asserted in the interview that no wrong-doings ocurred, yet it is never clarified what exactly the decision-making process behind the firings was. It is unclear in the article whether the NBC journalist conducting the interview even asked Gonzales the hard-hitting questions that would clear up exactly why the firings occurred, but one thing is clear: If those questions were asked, Gonzales certainly didn't aswer them. Simply put, his feet were never put to the fire ... which means in this instance journalism failed in its role as the public's political watchdog.
In my opinion, an equally important story to the one that ran across the country Tuesday would be one focusing on the fact that Gonzales is skirting the tough questions. What does he have to hide? Why isn't he being an open book if he or his department did nothing wrong? Please, Mr. Gonzales, tell us what those attorneys did to loose their jobs. Unfortanately, such a story has yet to be published in mainstream media. Even the usually top-notch New York Times failed to point out Gonzales' defiant behavior. Instead, Gonzales has basically told the press and the public, "Don't worry, I have nothing to hide, but I'm not going to tell you anything. Just take my word for it." While the mainstream press has obliged to Gonzales' wishes, we the should public hold our media to a higher standard.

March 28, 2007

Minnesota, Medicine, and Medtronic

The Star Tribune reported Tuesday that a recent medical study has found certain drugs are as effective as stents in preventing heart attacks and helping heart-disease sufferers live longer. The study, while certainly important in most medical circles, probably did not recieve significant coverage in many metropolitan papers. The differing factor for the Twin Cities, however, is that it serves as an international hub for medical research and medical-device production. As the headquarters for Medtronic, a important site for Boston Scientific research and production, and the the homebase of University of Minnesota medical research, it is explainable that this story would merit broader coverage in the Star Tribune and other local publications. In Minnesota, at least, the effect of such a study goes beyond the medical implications, but expands to the reality of a possible economic impact. As a potential precursor to the way doctors around the world respond to heart conditions, the study could ultimately affect job lose and production decreases here in Minnesota (For example, Boston Scientific's stent product is currently produced in Maple Grove) This explains why the story ran as a small excerpt on the front page as well as the top story in the daily Business section as opposed to perhaps waiting for the weekly Health section. In this instance, the Star Tribune has exhibited an adhearance to one of journalism's key mantras: the importance of locality, and its subsequent effect on relevance.
The study was conducted at the American College of Cardiology in New Orleans, and featured patients from across the United States and Canada. Therefore, not surprisingly, the story was not covered locally, but instead was plucked from a newswire service. In the paper, the story is listed in its byline as a Bloomberg Newswire article, but also credits Star Tribune staff reporter Janet Moore for addtions to the wire version (a practice not uncommon in attempt to localize a national story). It is not clear exactly which parts Moore contributed to give the story a Minnesota pertinence, but some parts stand out as localized additions. For example, the fact that Boston Scientific produces its stents in Maple Grove, Minn., most likely would never appear in a national version of the story. Check out the version of the story to note the differences.
As a whole, the The Star Tribune coverage was done very well. The story included the local business angle while still sharing the medical importance as well. My one complaint would be that the story failed to mention Medtronic (Arguuably the Twin Cities biggest and most important name in medicine) until the second-to-last paragraph. In today's attention-deficit media culture, it has been established that almost all newspaper readers fail to read an article from beginning to completion. This indicates an even greater need to stress the importance of including the most imperative facts toward the beginning of the story, which in this instance should have included the affect the study might have on Medtronic.