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How has the paper changed?

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We looked at a week's worth of The Herald-Sun from 2004 and a week from 2005 to see how coverage had changed in the year since Paxton took over the paper. Comparing the final edition of the seven issues starting Sunday, Dec. 5, 2004, to the week starting Sunday, Dec. 4, 2005, we noticed the following trends:

The paper's promise of "more local news" was fulfilled in some ways: 78 percent of front-page content in this year's sample was local, versus 51 percent of last year's. The percentage of local stories in the A and metro sections of the paper was 45 percent in 2005, up from 38 percent in 2004.

But the number of local stories dropped along with the overall number of stories in those sections. There were 72 local stories for the week in 2004, versus 60 for the week in 2005. There were 190 news stories overall in 2004, but only 133 in 2005. Thinner papers mean less news.

There were fewer sources of national and international news in 2005, almost all of which came from the Associated Press; in 2004, the paper's editors pulled from The New York Times news service, the Washington Post, Bloomberg News and other sources.

The goal of putting more local news on the front page in 2005 frequently meant that major national and international news stories didn't make it. In some cases, major stories ran on A1 but were placed below the fold.

Take the coverage of Saddam Hussein's war crimes trial, for instance. On Dec. 6, 2005, The New York Times ran a photograph of Saddam pointing his finger in the air in anger as the centerpiece photo with accompanying story on its front page. That photo also ran big on the front page of The News & Observer, accompanying a story. The Herald-Sun ran a small photo of Saddam at the bottom of the front page as a teaser for a story on page A3.

This is one of many cases where we noticed conscious decisions to value local content over national content when considering front-page worthiness, an approach the paper's new management believes is of value to readers who might be more likely to get national and international news from television, the Internet or other sources. (Unless it's news about TV, apparently: That same day, the paper ran a teaser for a story on ABC News hosts chosen to replace Peter Jennings at the very top of the page, above the masthead.)

Other changes, however, might be less intentional.

There were fewer local enterprise news stories in 2005, and features tended to be shorter. Event-based coverage (a gala at NCCU, a city council swearing-in ceremony, a holiday event at Duke Homestead) increased, as did spot news (a house fire) and light features, including a story on Duke University's $4 million upgrade to its golf facilities, which ran as the front-page centerpiece on Dec. 8.

In 2004, there was plenty of spot news and event coverage, judging by the sample we looked at, but the coverage tended to include more sidebars, more background and context, and included quotes from more sources. Those stories were balanced by in-depth features, such as a news feature on the failure of the Hayti Development Corporation, an in-depth profile of an Afghan exchange student at Jordan High School, the impact of Lenovo's takeover on IBM workers, and the use of historic restoration tax credits in a variety of projects in Durham.

One indication of the depth and quality of reporting is the number of sources quoted in a story--generally speaking, the more the better. Looking at non-trial coverage written by Herald-Sun staff in the front and metro sections of the paper, we noticed an average of 2.8 sources quoted per story, compared to 3.6 in 2004.

The number of stories written by the paper's five most productive reporters those weeks increased 18 percent in 2005.

By the numbers

Week of
12/5/04
Week of
12/4/05
Local stories on the front page 18 25
Percentage of front page stories that were local 51 78
Number of local, staff-written stories in the A and metro sections 72 60
Percentage of stories in the A and metro sections that were local and staff-written 38 45
Percentage of local coverage comprised of meetings and events 31 35
Average daily number of local, staff-written stories in the A and metro sections 10.3 8.6
Average number of sources in a staff-written news story (in the A and metro sections, excluding court coverage and columns) 3.6 2.8
Average weekly story output for the five most productive reporters (excluding sports) 6.6 7.8

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