Sunday, April 6, 2008

[UPDATED] EXCLUSIVE: HellWell's side of the arrest

The Hatchet's editor-in-chief responded to my blog post from Friday. I thought I'd address some of his comments here.

First, I appreciate that good journalism is hard. I was on the staff of my high school newspaper and was an editor my senior year, and that was tough; I'm sure it's way more difficult to run a paper in college. I give the Hatchet a lot of credit for the product they put out. And I'm sure Sherman is right about the story that started all this in the first place, that "[there] are certainly questions that could be asked but many people who have the answers are not permitted to answer questions. Essentially there is one person who can speak for the University so answers often take hours, days and more time than we have to turn a story around."

Except, wait: the University only has one spokesperson? The entire university? And we put up with that? It's a wonder the Hatchet staff can print any articles at all, if they're constantly waiting for one person to get back to them. I talked about the HellWell arrest at dinner with some friends last night, and got a completely different version of the circumstances than the one I read on Thursday. Were my friends telling the truth? I don't know, because all I have to go on is the story in the Hatchet. (Was no one on HellWell staff willing to talk to the Hatchet? Even off-the-record?) I recognize that some sources are worth more than others, but even an unofficial account of the scene from a staffer speaking anonymously is better than the printed version of the story. If the Hatchet didn't pursue any other interviews -- and from Sherman's post, it's not apparent that they did -- then they're missing a big piece of the story.

Additionally, if a reporter is waiting on answers from a source, I as a reader appreciate it if I know he or she tried to get other input than what appears on the page. A simple "Requests for information went unanswered" makes me feel like you're trying to get at the story, rather than just going with what you're told. The Hatchet story only quotes two sources -- the arrested student and a UPD officer. Again, there were obviously more people involved in this story -- HellWell staff at the very least. Presumably, other students were at HellWell during this time -- no one saw a girl being arrested?

These questions stuck in my mind. They stuck so much, in fact, that I interviewed a staffer at HellWell, who told me that the arrest was a hot topic of conversation at work. Important note: she was not speaking to me officially in her capacity as a HellWell staffer during our conversation. The original version of this post contained her name, which I've removed to avoid any confusion that might have occurred through her comments in this post. She talked to several coworkers about it, including the manager who was on duty at the time of the arrest. He didn't know about the Hatchet article until she told him.

The staffer also said that according to her manager, HellWell staff tried to get Jennifer Sales (the arrested student) to leave without involving the authorities. "We're told you can call UPD if you need to ... [but] who's really gonna cause trouble at the gym?" she said. "They [HellWell staff] repeatedly told her that she couldn't come in." Once inside, Sales apparently ignored the UPD officer staff eventually called. "It was her making an issue. She was adamant about going to work out," said the staffer.

An escalating struggle? Ignoring a uniformed officer? Sounds pretty dramatic -- and newsworthy. But apparently the Hatchet still disagrees.

Finally, a quick point on ads. I brought up the point that last week's Hatchet was really front-loaded with ads. Here's Sherman's response:
On Friday and Tuesday, the business office gives me a sheet that has the amount of pages of advertisements. So if there were no stories in last issue, the ads would have fit on seven pages. Because we care so much about the news and keeping the paper financially viable, we typically strive for a 50/50 ad to news ratio. So we printed 14 pages. We didn’t cave to our advertisers. Ads must be laid out a certain way based on our contracts with advertisers.
If I'm reading this right, some advertisers pay more money to get their ads put in the beginning of the paper. That's perfectly fair; more people read those pages, and so they should be more expensive. And it's fine that the Hatchet runs ads there; that makes economic sense, and is useful to both readers and advertisers.

However, I'll say it again: ads should not outweigh content. If you've sold ads for more than half of page 3, you're saying that the advertising value of that page is greater than the news value of that page. And if you do the same thing for other pages earlier in the paper, and save most of your news content for the back, you're saying it's more important that your readers see ads than it is that they see news. Again, I'm glad that so many advertisers buy space in the Hatchet. But the editors need to realize that by consistently prioritizing ads over news, they're not serving their audience. When I see a page that's mostly ads and little news, I'm likely to turn the page -- depriving the advertisers of the reason they're paying a premium for ad space early in the paper. Unless I'm scanning the classifieds, a page with more ads than news doesn't interest me. And the Hatchet already has a classifieds section.


Anonymous said...

How does the Hatchet disagree that it is newsworthly? They printed a story about it ipso facto they thought it was newsworthy. Also, the description of what happened from your employee source and the Hatchet's account sound about the same.

So you know your source will probably be fired for talking to you. Only certain high level administrators and spokespeople are allowed to talk to the media.

James said...

I would drop the ad criticism. Without ads, there's no content.

Frankly, I think it's a tad narrow-minded and niave to think the Hatchet focuses on the bottom line before news. Regardless, the reality of the industry they will be working in places AT LEAST a 50/50 ratio on $$$ per actual news. Would newspapers exist if they didn't make someone some money?

It's just the nature of the newspaper as a medium. Besides, if we were a normal blog, you better believe we'd sell ads, too.

Sarah said...

James --

I'm totally fine with ads. A 50/50 ratio between ads and news makes sense, and I think it's great that the Hatchet has so many organizations who want to advertise. I start to have a problem when the first few pages of the paper are covered in ads and the last few pages of the paper are covered in news content. For instance, in the issue I'm talking about, there was a follow-up story on the kid living in Gelman -- a story I was really interested. But it was relegated to the bottom of page 10 -- not exactly prime real estate.

I maintain that by making the first few pages of the paper so ad-heavy, the Hatchet is catering to their advertisers by (rightly) assuming that more people look at page 3 than page 10. They're giving their advertisers the eyeballs they're paying for, but they're not giving their readers the content they deserve.

wayne brady said...

Why do readers of a free newspaper deserve anything?

Anonymous said...

Oh Jake, how I wish you weren't a condescending douchebag.

Emily said...

We've complained that The Hatchet staff is too self-serious for a group of student reporters. If that's the case, we're not helping. I think it'd be possible to find this many problems with major papers too if an entire blog group were looking for them. If the Hatchet starts putting ads on page 1 above the fold, then I'd agree with the criticism. But putting an ad on page 3? If someone's already bothered to open the paper, I imagine they could handle turning the page again... having that page to turn because the Hatchet found advertisers to pay for it.

Sarah said...

Wayne, you bring up a good point. Do the readers of a free publication "deserve" good content in that product? I'd argue they do.

In several of my SMPA classes at GW, we've discussed the idea that news is a public good. Since the public as a whole doesn't have access to the seats of power, news reporters act as the people's eyes and ears. That's why I love and respect journalism -- journalists do what the public can't. And that's why good journalism is so important -- if reporters aren't telling the whole story, or aren't pursuing the whole story, the public is adversely affected.

The Hatchet is an independent newspaper. Do reporters and editors have an obligation to provide good content? Yes, because they're a news organization. If they're only interested in providing superficial coverage, or they're not interested in pursuing bigger stories, then they've ceased to be a news organization. But they're the best campus news source we've got. It's therefore in my interest to make sure I'm getting the most complete, most interesting, most dynamic journalism possible. And if I don't feel that I am, I'm going to say so.