July 31, 2004
by David Kopel
Which section of the newspaper should come first? In response to a study of reader preferences, the Boulder Daily Camerarecently moved local news to the A section, and pushed world/ national news and commentary into B. Similarly, the Rocky Mountain Newsdevotes the first half its news section to Colorado stories. But in The Denver Post,the bulk of the A section is usually for international and national news. Should the Postswitch to showcasing local coverage every day? I think so, because the Post,like almost all other newspapers, is at its best when covering its home state.
You could argue that national/international should come first because it's more important. National and international issues are important - which is precisely why you should not depend on the Newsor the Postfor them.
James Lileks, a columnist for the Minneapolis Star Tribune,recently confessed that he has "ceased to rely on my paper for international and national news. The Web's competitive advantage is overwhelming."
As Lileks pointed out, local dailies are can be highly biased in selecting what extraterritorial coverage to print or omit. In the Denver dailies, good news from Iraq (such as the peace in the Shia and Kurd territories making up about 70 percent of the country) is nearly as hard to find as coverage about Bill Clinton's national security adviser Sandy Berger pilfering top-secret terrorism documents from the National Archives by hiding them in his clothes.
You could never spend a cent on a daily newspaper for the rest of your life, and you could still be very well-informed about issues such as the budget deficit, international trade, or the so-called Patriot Act. To understand Israel, you'd do a lot better to read the English language online versions of the right-wing The Jerusalem Postplus the left-wing Haaretzthan to depend on the slanted selection of stories that appear in the Denver papers. The genocide currently being perpetrated in the Sudan gets perfunctory attention in newspapers, and the urgency it deserves on weblogs.
But for state and local news, the Denver dailies are indispensable. The Internet offers very little material on most state and local stories. It is true that Colorado television and radio stations sometimes break stories that the newspapers missed, or significantly advance a story already in the news.
Even so, if you don't read at least one of the Denver dailies, it's hard to have an informed opinion about statewide issues. Because each paper often runs stories which the other misses or undercovers, a well-informed citizen will read both.
The bias problem is less severe in local coverage. One reason is that because the victims of an unfair story live in the community, they are often given a chance to respond. Moreover, reporters living in Colorado have at least a fighting chance of understanding some of Colorado's many subcultures.
And because some local readers will have firsthand knowledge of local events, it's more difficult for local editors to ignore or bury a major local story.
The opinion pages of the local papers are likewise indispensable for local and state commentary, and often unnecessary for national and international matters. On the national/international front, both papers rely for opinion columns by syndicated columnists.
While the Newspresents a reasonable diversity of opinion in syndicated columns, thePost'sSunday Perspective section tilts so heavily leftward that liberal-moderate David Broder is one of the most conservative voices in it.
On the Internet, you could probably pick out a selection of columnists - from both sides of the spectrum - whom you would enjoy more than many of the syndicated columnists in the Denver dailies. Mark Steyn of the Chicago Sun-Timesarticulates the hawks' rationale in the war on terrorism better than anyone you can read in the Post'sopinion section. The Web sites of The Nationor The New Republicmagazines provide a more factually substantive critique of the Bush administration than you can get from Paul Krugman or Maureen Dowd.
On local issues - ranging from circuses to abandoned babies to police shootings - the Denver papers offer commentary that you can't find elsewhere on the Internet. The best talk radio shows sometimes outdo the papers, and occasionally you'll find a Colorado weblog that offers a perspective that the local paper didn't. On the whole, however, the local opinion pages are necessary reading if you expect your local opinion to be taken seriously.
The local papers are unmatched for local coverage. The more they emphasize their strength, the more they will make themselves indispensable rather than obsolete.