Cook column: Obama front page stirs reactions

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 24, 2009

One subscriber canceled the Salisbury Post last week over the “President Obama” front page of Wednesday’s paper. Several readers complained. A woman who left a message on my phone said she was sick of “Obama worship.”
And one subscriber made a personal visit to the Post’s newsroom to thank us for that front page.
In a county where more than 60 percent of voters did not vote for Barack Obama, Post news staff members are very aware that this is a nation divided. But Tuesday was a historic day, and we saw no reason to soft peddle it. So we went with a full-page photo of the president taking the oath of office on our front page, designed by graphic artist Andy Mooney. Copy editors Paris Goodnight, Scott Jenkins and Chris Verner filled the rest of our pages with as much inauguration news as we could squeeze in, from the text of Obama’s speech to reports from local people who were on the scene. Verner, who is also editorial page editor, filled the opinion page with comments from readers about the significance of the event.
That’s what we call scorched-earth coverage, using every source and angle we can think of to record an event.
The first time I remember using that term for our coverage was in 1992, when the first President Bush visited Faith on the Fourth of July as he was running for re-election. Presidential appearances here are rare, and we treated that one like a visit from royalty, giving readers pages and pages of photos and stories.
That’s a big part of our job ó recording history.
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Still, we take that canceled subscription seriously.
When I came to work for the Post some 30 years ago, the newsroom operated without much feedback from the business side of the company. That kind of information might have tainted our journalistic independence. Business was strong. An alienated reader or advertiser could be counted on to come back once he or she cooled off.
Now we strive to maintain that same independence ó not bowing to the powerful or well-heeled ó knowing that our company needs to work harder than ever to make a profit. As an editor, it’s impossible not to worry about the business side knowing that jobs are at stake ó and that several desks in the newsroom are already empty.
Every business has had setbacks during this recession. Newspapers are under a unique set of pressures.
How many clichés can I string together to explain this? A paper that offends no one probably is not doing its job. You can’t please all the people all the time. Often the truth hurts, and we’re in the business of pursuing the truth, so each day’s edition likely makes someone unhappy. We push on, striving for fairness, accuracy and thoroughness and letting those chips fall.
I know the chips haven’t fallen too badly readership-wise when people use the free services of our Web site to bash the Post. Obviously, they’re still reading our stories and looking at our photos.
In fact, demand for the information and photos we gather is greater than ever, between print and online editions of the Post. That’s what keeps us going in the newsroom. The Post has something readers can’t get anywhere else, local news.
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Knowing that Rowan County is overwhelmingly conservative, why play up Obama’s inauguration? Why not put the departing President Bush on 1A in a full-page photo instead?
Because that would not have accurately reflected what happened on Jan. 20, 2009.
Besides, I don’t think that’s what anyone expected us to do. Some people don’t like the new president, and they face at least four years of turning pages and changing channels every time his face appears.
Some Democrats have been doing that for eight years.
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U.S. newspapers and their readers’ expectations have been evolving for 300 years. In the beginning, papers were expected to have a political point of view. Now impartiality is the expectation ó as long as it reflects the reader’s point of view. If not, then it’s biased.
Technology has changed too ó a six-column, full-color photograph was unthinkable for most of our history. And trends in typography and layout come and go.
Anyone who bought a paper out of a rack in Salisbury on Wednesday may have noticed a photo of Obama filling the Charlotte Observer’s front page, too, with all the stories about the inauguration inside.
That coincidence stems from the trend toward strong graphics and ó on special occasions ó magazine-like front pages. You probably will see more of that on special occasions and important stories.
And you’ll see more of President Obama. He is the nation’s president. He will give state-of-the-union addresses, sign legislation, meet world leaders. Stories and photos about Obama will appear in virtually every daily paper in the nation. That’s not worship. It’s news.
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Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.