Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Rewriting a news release for Page 1

asda pedestrian cross processingImage by slimmer_jimmer via Flickr

The front page of The Record today is filled with news for a change -- from a spike in pedestrian deaths in car-loving New Jersey to the governor-elect mulling a 'state of emergency' to hospitals restricting visitors because of the flu scare.

But if you read the most prominent story carefully -- pedestrian deaths jump 33% -- you will realize it is based not on the reporter's enterprise but on a news release from a group in Washington that probably arrived via fax -- a neat little package that the paper loves. All Staff Writer Karen Rouse had to do to land on Page 1 was make a few phone calls to officials and interview one -- just one -- pedestrian. Today is the second day in a row that traffic safety has been splashed across the front page. Yesterday's story, also by Rouse, was based on a safety grant the state won.

The photos for the pedestrian story, of Teaneck's Cedar Lane, are good, but the speed of cars and trucks on Hackensack Avenue and River Street in Hackensack make them far more hazardous to cross. From a driver's point of view, Main Street in Hackensack is a nightmare, because of pedestrians darting out from between cars on the one-way thoroughfare. Oh, wait. The former Hackensack daily moved most of its reporters and photographers to offices in Woodland Park more than a year ago.

The story also fails to mention how speeding enforcement can make streets more pedestrian-friendly. On Cedar Lane, a police speed trap is far away from one block where drivers race and pedestrians run for their lives -- from the CVS parking lot to the Blockbuster store and food businesses on the opposite side of the street.

I recall that until it received a news release or wire service story based on another report a few years ago, The Record didn't realize that an unusually large number of pedestrians who are killed are senior citizens. That's because the paper's lazy editors treat incidents such as pedestrian deaths and the elderly ramming their cars into buildings, other cars and people as so much "police news," failing to see a pattern.

These same editors don't encourage reporters to get out into their communities, talk to people and observe as a way of finding stories. Instead, reporters are told to devote all their time to neat, little journalistic packages, including news releases, reports, hearings, meetings, proposed ordinances and protests.

When I was a news copy editor at The Record, I recall vividly how two reporters rejected my story ideas -- not because they were bad ideas or couldn't be done without legwork -- but because no group was "clamoring for change," as one of the staffers put it. I've always felt it should be the newspaper that sets the public agenda, not the other way around.

You'll find a story based on one of those neat packages on the front of the Local section -- the first story about Englewood in 12 days (but you won't find any stories about Teaneck or Hackensack, the paper's home for more than 110 years). This is huge news. Englewood is forming a 'green team' to boost recycling.

Of course, the newspaper has ignored how Hackesnsack moved into the forefront of recycling among North Jersey communities more than a year ago when it began accepting  TV sets, computers and other electronics; light bulbs and batteries -- in addition to the usual curbside pickup of newspapers, junk mail, plastic bottles and cans.

And I don't see anything in the L-1 story about Englewood beginning to accept television sets, computers, light bulbs and batteries.

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