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In a heated political time, how The News chooses Page One stories

Mike Connelly

A pro-Trump reader recently sent a letter, unhappy that a story was in the back of the A section instead of on Page One.

"This story SCREAMS first page," the reader wrote. "Such dishonesty is breathtaking. You have become worse than useless; you have become ridiculous."

The next day I received a just-as-unhappy email about another issue from a reader on the other side of the political spectrum.

"Have you given up on journalism?" the second reader wrote. "Have you gone completely Republican and intend to hide these stories from your readers?"

Such is the state of partisan passions in our country these days.

Both notes came in the heat of the impeachment fight, but they are typical of what lands in my mailbox every week. The writers are convinced that The News is biased. And they are incredulous when I point out that partisans on the other side feel the same way.

So how do we decide which national and international stories run on Page One? It happens fast – sometimes we don't see the stories until close to the first edition deadline of 11 p.m. But it doesn't happen casually. Four factors drive our decisions.

Most days, we aim to have three local stories on Page One and one national-international story. What The News offers that you can't get anywhere else is in-depth local and state news, so we emphasize the local report on Page One. But we know print readers like the traditional bundle – a mix of national, international, state, local, business, sports, lifestyle and entertainment news. So we usually reserve one Page One slot for national and international news.

It isn't a hard-and-fast rule. When we have a lot of strong local and state news, Page One will be all local. If the local scene is quiet or the national-international news is of great importance, we use more than one national-international story on Page One.

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In a heated political time, how The News chooses Page One stories

Most days, we want the national-international story on Page One to go beyond the news of the day. People have so many ways to hear “what happened” – from cable news to websites to social media feeds to smartphone alerts – that good newspapers long ago stopped filling Page One with what happened yesterday. Our aim always is to choose stories for Page One that give readers news they haven’t seen on cable TV or the web.

If the news of the day is so big it demands a presence on Page One, we look for stories that go beyond "what happened." We look for pieces that give readers insight or context or a peek into the behind-the-scenes machinations. That has more value than a regurgitation of what is already known.

Once in a while, a historic story demands traditional treatment. That happened in December when the U.S. House of Representatives voted to impeach President Trump. In that case, our Page One was intentionally similar to Page One 21 years ago when President Bill Clinton was impeached. We even republished a small version of the Clinton Page One. We work hard to ensure similar events get similar treatment, regardless of politics, and we want readers to see that.

The pro-Trump letter writer was unhappy about Page One on Dec. 18. As we put the paper together the evening before, we knew it would land on doorsteps the day Trump would likely be impeached. So the national-international story on Page One that day was a piece advancing the expected impeachment vote.

The letter writer argued that a story about the FBI's 2016 investigation of the Trump campaign should have been on Page One. It was a significant story, but it was an easy news decision to use an impeachment piece. It was only the third time in history that a president of the United States had been impeached.

We could have put more than one national-international story on Page One that day, of course. But if we had, it probably would have been a second piece about impeachment. The impeachment of a president is so rare and so consequential that it eclipses other news.

The Dec. 18 Page One is just one example, and an event like impeachment is an easy call. But it typifies our news editors' judgment on Page One and throughout the news pages. They are driven to give you an insightful report, not take sides.

That means the cable news combat of the day rarely makes The Buffalo News Page One. The channels and sites aimed at people with a strong point of view – whether it be liberal bloggers or conservative talk radio or Fox News or MSNBC – try to to keep people coming back by feeding outrage. At The News, we don't subscribe to that. The charges and countercharges that fill the internet and cable TV are usually smoke that obscures the light. We look for stories that cut through the daily talking points and shed light.

That is our aim with local coverage, too. In 2017, former Republican Rep. Chris Collins sent a fundraising appeal citing The News' investigation into his involvement with an Australian company: "Another day, another fake story." In 2019, Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, who is also the former head of the state Democratic Party, referred to The News' investigation of an organization led by Brown allies as "fake news."

Collins has since pleaded guilty in an insider trading case involving the company, resigned from office and is awaiting sentencing. The Community Action Organization, which Brown was defending, is being investigated by the FBI and the state attorney general.

Count me among those weary of the toxic partisanship these days. But be assured we will keep doing our job: presenting an insightful news report, and going beyond the headlines to tell the stories people don't want told.

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