GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

November 23, 2012

Why Did My Newspaper Do That? Determining retail news coverage

Why Did My Newspaper Do That?
Ray Lamont

---- — Amid all the events and news stories that come up annually – from city and town budget issues, to first days of school and, yes, Gloucester St. Peter’s Fiesta — none can raise more coverage questions than Black Friday.

It may be, of course, the most manufactured “event” of the year, purely commercial in every way, and from both a good and bad standpoint; it casts an important and generally positive spotlight on local businesses, yet many people still decry the Black Friday rush as the most blatant sign of the commercialism of the holiday season.

It also poses some interesting dilemmas for newspapers and other media outlets. I know I will never forget my own most memorable experience one year with Black Friday coverage. It was the time I was working as a city editor at another newspaper, had a staff reporter leave the office to cover Black Friday shopping — and literally never come back.

The night we were expecting his story, we simply ran with photos of shoppers racing to and from a major local shopping mall. But even after another editor went to our reporter’s house and confirmed he was OK, we still never heard from him, save for a mileage voucher that came in the mail three days later with a brief note saying he had simply decided that day-to-day journalism wasn’t for him. I would learn later that he had talked to so many people and compiled so many notes that he didn’t know where to start his story — so he never did.

An even more challenging scenario, however, came up a few years later, when a local businessman thanked me, as editor, for featuring his shop on our front page as part of our Black Friday coverage — and said he had bought a series of large-scale ads just before the shopping season, hoping it would ensure he’d get good coverage. I told him that was great – but the ads had nothing to do with the front-page news coverage. Our reporter and photographer were drawn to his store by the colorful costumed characters that were out front greeting customers.

One of most hard-and-fast tenets of news coverage, of course, is that it’s not for sale. No amount of advertising can place a news story on Page 1, or anywhere else in the paper, if that newspaper or other media outlet is to have credibility within the community. And I can tell you that holds for stories about businesses and the economy — including Black Friday shopping. Yet we’ve had a number of recent stories — including today’s and the advance Black Friday coverage — that have clearly spotlighted specific local businesses.

What determines that type of coverage? Why, you may ask, does your community’s newspaper do that?

First, if you look through the businesses noted in our retail or other business coverage, you’ll find that some showcase businesses that advertise in the Times and others don’t. To be honest, we – on the newsroom side of our Times office — may learn about a potential story through an ad, just as a customer would. That was the case in learning this week about the extra-early 12:30 a.m. opening for the Sears hometown store on Eastern Avenue. But that became news because it was, by all counts, the first store to open for Black Friday.

Similarly, stories about businesses opening at 6 a.m. Friday in downtown Gloucester, and other stories on the holiday shopping season featured comments from individual retailers. But the best way to focus such stories is to talk to individual shop owners about their prospects for the holiday season. And when staff writer James Niedzinski and photo correspondent Jim Vaiknoras set out for their Black Friday rounds, they did so looking for the best stories while featuring a diverse array of shops, from a toy store to a jewelry shop, book store, art gallery and everything in between.

But our goal as your community newspaper is to cover the news in our communities. The economic heart and soul of Gloucester, Rockport, Manchester and Essex is the corps of small businesses that make up these communities’ downtowns and other shopping areas, not the major national retailers that anchor the Liberty Tree and North Shore malls. And the success of these smaller, local stores throughout the holiday season is indeed a significant local news story, spotlighted through the ones that can make the best individual stories and photos.

As always, let me know what you think.

Questions? Comments? Is there an issue you’d like to see addressed in a future column? Contact Times Editor Ray Lamont at 978-283-7000, x3438, or at rlamont@gloucestertimes.com.