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Putting Local Interest First (Sort Of) at the Grand Rapids Press

May 5, 2010

When the IWW May Day 2010 event, sponsored by a number of local groups and successful in every sense of the word, was not covered by the Grand Rapids Press, I decided to find out why. I wrote a letter to Paul Keep, editor: “On May Day, over 200 residents of Grand Rapids gathered in Martin Luther King Park for an event sponsored by several local and area groups. There were bands, a neighborhood potluck, events for children, and information booths. The Press was alerted in advance about this event, and yet there was no coverage of it in the paper.

“Leading up to May Day, the Press published three different articles about Rob Bliss—would he or wouldn’t he cancel his May Day event downtown? What was the weather going to be like? Would Rob decide to go forward or back down? That’s a lot of coverage for something that didn’t happen.

“On Sunday, you stated in your column that you felt that the Press needed to be the go-to place for people to learn about events and opinions in the community. You also stated you wanted to encourage community participation.

“Please explain to me the wisdom of ignoring an event that many local people worked on and which actually did go forward with a significant community turnout, while giving triple coverage to an event that didn’t even occur. I’d especially like to know if the Press’s political slant had anything to do with your decision not to mention the Martin Luther Park event.”

Paul Keep wrote back promptly, courteously, and in surprising detail. But I found what he didn’t say was as interesting as what he did. He started out by assuming I was one of the organizers of the event (I wasn’t), and assured me that the paper did in fact get word about it: “I asked our metro editor, who is in charge of making the decisions on what we cover locally, about this and he reported that we did indeed receive the advance notice of the May Day event at Martin Luther King Park.”

Then Keep went on to list all of the events that were covered—and weren’t—on May Day: “As you know from reading the paper, our reporters covered a number of other things going on in town on Saturday, including the first day of the statewide smoking ban, GVSU’s graduation, the first day of census takers hitting the street, a Grandville apartment fire and a regional high school technology fair (more than 800 projects). Our photographers shot pictures to go with all of these stories plus the Tulip Time opening, the Latin festival and Right to Life Bike & Hike Fest (although the latter photos did not run, for space reasons). We were unable to get to the event you mentioned and also the Grace Hunger Walk, because of the limitations of staff and space resources. And, of course, we had sports reporters covering a number of local stories and they used some of our staff photographer time as well.”

He added, “It was an unusual weekend, too, in that a number of our sports reporters and photographers were in Las Vegas covering the Saturday night fight of GR-native Floyd Mayweather.”

Keep’s conclusion? “I can assure you that politics did not play any role at all in our selection of stories to cover. The editorial page, where opinion is encouraged, does not make the coverage decisions for our newsroom. Your event sounds perfectly worthy of coverage, we just ran out of people to cover things.”

And that left me with an interesting handful of statements to study. First, note that Keep did not even address the advance coverage given to the Rob Bliss May Day event that never took place. In a newspaper of limited resources, that level of attention still seems like a strange decision.

And I know that Keep isn’t kidding when he says that he ran out of people to cover events. The Press laid off 65 employees in January, and that was after large-scale cuts to wages and benefits in 2009. In July last year, the Press lost a number of long-time reporters and columnists, some of whom apparently have since decided to work for the paper freelance. The fulltime staff can best be described as skeletal for the amount of work it has to handle.

With that in mind, I was left to dissect what had and hadn’t been found “worthy” enough to receive a reporter and/or photographer assigned to it. Tulip Time always gets plenty of press, and so do school events, so the technology fair coverage made sense. I was glad to see that the Press chose to cover, however minimally, the Fiesta celebration put on by the Latin Americans United for Progress. But the first day of census taking? And the first day of the smoking ban? Those have been marked multiple times in the Press already, and surely there was little to say about the very first day of the smoking ban—why not cover it after the weekend was over?

I also couldn’t help but notice the Right to Life event received reporter attention, although apparently didn’t make the final cut for the paper—while two more progressive events, May Day 2010 and the Grace Hunger Walk, did not.

But the really bizarre thing was that the Press had chosen to send “sports reporters and photographers” to Las Vegas to cover the Floyd Mayfield fight.

Paul Keep has reiterated a number of times that the reason that local news lands on the front page of the paper, trumping all national events, is that local coverage is the Press’s “niche.” On March 21 of this year, he wrote, “Everyone knows about the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile right after they hit, but how will you find out about important events occurring in a city, village, or township neighborhood near you? That’s why you see the Press front page today dominated by stories that are local or regional…Perspective and deeper understanding is our niche.”

With that mission in mind, I guess I can understand sending a Press reporter to the Las Vegas event to dig for local-angle stories about the Mayweather-Mosley fight. But a whole team of Press staffers? These guys were so pressed to keep filing stories that they ended up, absurdly, doing video interviews of each other.

And for a sports event covered by every major network and wire service, why did the Press need its own photos—let alone video clips and Tweets? After all, it picks up most of its national and international content and images from wire service reports. Photos of the Mayweather fight fill pages and pages of a Google search, and the Press photos are nothing different or unusual from photographs available from other sources. Meanwhile, coverage of truly local events—the Press’s main focus, according to its editor—were left begging for notice.

I find trying to decode this newspaper is always a puzzle. As in many times in the past, today I watch the ship of state that is the Grand Rapids Press sailing on: listing ever to the right and veering off on a course charted by its own inscrutable editorial decisions.

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