Monday, July 13, 2009

Culling the richest report from the wires

By Kate Parry, Star Tribune Reader's Representative

Stan Feldman started his newspaper reading Tuesday morning with the New York Times, interested in a page one story about White House involvement in the dismissal of eight federal prosecutors.

The Times reported in the second paragraph that questions about political motivation arose after President Bush told Attorney General Alberto Gonzales about complaints involving several prosecutors by Republican lawmakers.

In the third paragraph, the story explained that a year earlier, when Harriet Miers was the White House legal counsel, she had asked about replacing all 93 U.S. attorneys.

When he finished with the Times, Feldman started reading his Star Tribune. The retired schoolteacher from New Hope noticed the New York Times story about the federal prosecutors also appeared on the Star Tribune's front page. But he was surprised to see the second paragraph (on Bush and Gonzales) had been moved down to just after where the story jumped to an inside page.

That's when Feldman called me to ask what the Star Tribune's motive was in moving that paragraph. Doing so, he initially said, seemed to change the focus of the story.

We talked about why wire editors might make changes in wire stories. Feldman took another look and decided the change actually made the story easier to follow because it put events in chronological order.

As it turns out, though, wire editors Nan Williams and Catherine Preus moved the paragraph because the story dealt mostly with Miers, and they wanted to get a reference to her in the part of the story appearing on page one, said Nation/World editor Dave Peters. They then made a reference to Bush and Gonzales part of the jumpline on page one directing readers to that part of the story on an inside page.

Feldman's puzzling over the change raised an issue I hear about regularly from readers who wonder why wires stories in the Star Tribune sometimes read differently than they did when they originated at another newspaper or wire service. Many readers regularly use the Internet to compare Star Tribune wire stories to the originals on other newspaper and wire service websites. If there are changes, some are quick to assume impure motives -- mainly that Star Tribune editors are slanting stories to the political left or right.

"Of course we're not trying to introduce imbalance or unfairness," Peters said. "The editing we do is with an eye mainly to length and clarity."

Every night his wire editors comb the wires of the New York Times, the Associated Press, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the McClatchy News Service and several others for various versions of the same news events. Sometimes a story from one of those sources is clearly superior to the others and they choose to use it.

Often, Peters said, "we'll take information from several stories and combine it into one story that serves the reader better." When that much editing happens, the credit line on the story often reads "news services" or a credit is added at the end.

Editors trim and tighten stories to fit the space they've been assigned -- which means New York Times stories that tend to run long often get a trim. A skillful wire editor can do that quite seamlessly and retain the substance of the report despite shortening up background and details. About 12 inches of the New York Times story on the U.S. attorneys was trimmed.

The wire services didn't alert newspapers that the U.S. attorneys story was coming until evening, and the New York Times story didn't arrive until right on the first deadline, Peters said. His staff scrambled to get the story ready and called a top editor at home to get the go-ahead to remake the front page.

On Wednesday night, the wire editors faced another round of quickly combining differing wire stories when the Associated Press and the New York Times both offered stories on a hearing transcript that showed Khalid Shaikh Mohammed admitting to involvement in planning dozens of terror attacks, including Sept. 11.

Night team leader Steve Riel had his editors use the Associated Press version early and replaced it with the New York Times version when it arrived. Wire editor Sharon Nyberg noticed a reference in the Associated Press version to Mohammed admitting to involvement in the beheading of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl that was missing from the Times piece. She inserted that information in the Times story and in a Times list of Mohammed's claims, adding the Associated Press to a credit line at the end of the story.

The Times story was trimmed to fit the space, and Riel plucked a cautionary line from that material and added it to the list of terrorist acts Mohammed claimed to have directed. It read "Validity: It is not clear how many of Mohammed's expansive claims were legitimate. In 2005, the Sept. 11 commission said that he was noted for his extravagant ambitions and his view of himself as 'the superterrorist.' "

That line really put that list in perspective for me.

"Our goal is to provide the best and cleanest version of events," Peters said.

©2007 Star Tribune. All rights reserved.

Russians Invade U.S.?

Did you know that Russian troops are thrusting into the outskirts of Savannah, Georgia? That's what readers will learn from a Google Maps graphic accompanying a news story about Russian incursions into Georgia — the nation-state in the Caucasus, not the Caucasian-pride-ridden state in the southern United States. Google's mixup will not help Yahoo Answers user Jessica B., who presciently asked, "i herd on the news that rusia has invaded but i dont see them no where wats going on."