GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

June 29, 2013

Why Did My Newspaper Do That? Turning letters into Page 1 stories

Why Did My Newspaper Do That?
Ray Lamont

---- — Our lead story on today’s front page — the one about Gloucester’s delayed emergency response to a call last weekend, when the Bay View fire station was closed — began with one woman’s letter to Mayor Carolyn Kirk and members of the Gloucester City Council.

And it actually marked at least the third time in recent months that such a letter has spawned what proved to be a Page 1 story.

The first came when a letter to the Times by Gloucester school mom Amanda Kesterson — sent to us as a copy of an open letter sent to city councilors and School Committee members — raised questions regarding the safety of Gloucester schools in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook school catastrophe in Newtown, Conn. The other came when Lisa Fornero, Kesterson’s sister, also wrote to school officials and to us over concerns she has with the new “universal” school breakfast program being launched this fall at Veteran’s Memorial and Beeman Memorial schools.

There are, of course, all sorts of means we use to dig out and pursue a news story. Some are breaking news events that we cover live; others come from documented court or city and town board filings that spotlight an issue or potential local project; others are spawned by calls from local, state or federal officials, and even more can come from phone calls and news tips. Yet it’s not that often that a letter from a single resident sparks the kind of story that appears today.

Do we look at every letter as a potential news story? Not really; many letters address national issues best left to debate on our Opinion page or through our online comments section at gloucestertimes.com. And many letters are, of course, responses to news stories we have already printed.

What made these letters special? What made their content Page 1 news? Why would your community’s newspaper do that?

One reason is the response that each of these letters has drawn from city and/or school officials. And that’s especially the case with today’s story, which focuses on a letter from Lanesville resident Barbara Jobe — a letter she did not send to directly to us, but was forwarded by a city official.

For more than five years now, Gloucester Fire Department coverage in both the Magnolia area and especially in Bay View, Annisquam and Lanesville has, well, come under fire due to the continued regular shutdowns of the Bay View and Magnolia fire stations. Yet there have been few specific incidents that truly spotlighted the difference in response times that those station closures can bring. In this case, Jobe and her husband, who was in the midst of a heart attack, had to wait 12 minutes for the response from Central Station; by some estimates, it could have been 3-4 minutes from Bay View.

Her letter prompted quick responses from some councilors, as today’s story notes. And it has triggered calls for a special council session to try to address the issue once and for all. That, and whatever action the council and/or mayor wind up taking is obviously a significant story in itself.

The same proved true with the previous letters, which, in Kesterson’s case, drew extensive support for a petition to hold a public hearing on school safety — and clearly played some role in the city’s beefing up of security steps for the coming school year. Fornero’s letter also sparked discussion among school officials and parents regarding the breakfast program, not to mention additional debate in the Times and online.

Even beyond that, however, I think there’s another important aspects of turning letters into jumping off points for stories. That’s the idea that many concerns or suggestions, even if raised by one lone resident or letter writer, are indeed worth bringing to light. And every resident should indeed have a voice to make his or her concerns and ideas heard. As your primary daily local news source, we want to provide that voice, even if others sometimes don’t.

In the end, spotlighting these important concerns and ideas are what these stories have really been all about. As always, let me know what you think.

Questions? Comments? Is there an issue you’d like to see raised in a future column? Contact Times Editor Ray Lamont at 978-283-7000, x3432, or at rlamont@gloucestertimes.com.