Is Sonia Sotomayor front-page news?

by andybechtel

John Robinson, the editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., asks an interesting question on Twitter:  “Unlike other big papers in NC, we didn’t publish wire story on Sotomayor on A1. Not local. Not news (by a.m. publication). Bad call?”

Most daily newspapers in North Carolina did have the nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court on their front pages this morning. Raleigh, Charlotte, Wilmington, Fayetteville, Durham and Winston-Salem all had a Sotomayor story on 1A. The High Point paper did not, and neither did Greensboro, though it was mentioned in a promo at the top of the front page in the News & Record. (See them while they last at the Freedom Forum site.)

Here’s a way to rephrase Robinson’s question: When do editors for print media decide when news cycle trumps a story’s significance? That’s the question with this story, which broke at about 9 a.m. EDT Monday. It was covered extensively on cable TV and on newspaper Web sites throughout the day.

Where does that leave the story for print media? What can readers of a regional daily like the News & Record get out of a story that is 24 hours old? When is a story stale?

The Sept. 11 attacks are a good example of when a story’s significance outweighs its place in the daily churn of news. It’s hard to imagine anyone waking up on Sept. 12, 2001, and getting the paper off the driveway to discover that the United States had been attacked by terrorists. But the front pages of papers across the nation had that as their one story, for obvious reasons.

The Sotomayor story isn’t as monumental as the 9/11 attacks. It is big news, however, because it is President Obama’s first selection for the Supreme Court. And Sotomayor herself is historically significant as the first Hispanic on the court, assuming that she is confirmed and you don’t count Benjamin Cardozo. It would be a bigger story if Sotomayor were in line to succeed a conservative judge such as Antonin Scalia rather than a relatively liberal one like David Souter.

So my answer to Robinson’s question is, “It depends.”

If your paper can use the wire services and your own reporting in a way that brings more to the nomination story than what was reported Monday, then put Sotomayor on the front page. Print newspapers and their Web sites are still useful at adding the context that cable TV overlooked. Emphasize that. Use headlines that recognize that most readers know the gist of the story — and indicate that this story package will tell them things that they don’t know about it.

That’s what the Raleigh paper did, using a McClatchy story that offered a forward-looking view of the nomination along with textboxes and locally flavored sidebars. Curiously, the Charlotte paper used an Associated Press story on the front page, even though it is owned by McClatchy, as is the N&O.

If your newspaper emphasizes local news and breaking news, perhaps the Sotomayor story is not a good fit for your front page. That’s especially true if you have a solid lineup of local stories vying for space on 1A.

That’s not good or bad, but a matter of choice. And making choices is what editors do every day.

UPDATE: Robinson collects responses to his question on his blog.

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