The quest for balance
When Lancaster Newspapers reorganized its newsroom seven months ago, we promised that we would strive for a much more local newspaper and a much more fair newspaper.
On the first goal, there can be little debate. Local news stories now fill the front page and local section most days. A year ago, the balance between local and nonlocal stories was about 55-45 percent. Now the split is about 80 percent local and 20 nonlocal.
Whether that is the right balance remains to be seen. On Thursday a caller said she was disappointed that national news was disappearing from the paper. But the office workers here who take new orders say readers like it, and our subscribers are increasing.
On the matter of fairness, the jury is not only out, it's arguing with itself. In September, we promised that our writers would report as truthfully as possible, seeking to tell all sides of a story in an evenhanded manner.
Until last week, we thought we were more or less getting it right. Then a Millersville man sent me a short note about our placement of a story about a Republican report criticizing the administration's failure to protect the consulate in Benghazi.
"As much as I would like to believe your promise of objective reporting, I continue to see attempts to bury conservative/Republican issues, or criticisms of the president and Democrats, to the last sections of the paper," he said. "In this location they are often missed by the average reader."
If the article attacked Republicans, he added, it would have run on the front page, not D3, just before the legal notices.
As I was replying to the writer, another note arrived, this one from a county Democratic Party official, who was upset that the paper had profiled the new chairwoman of the Republican Party.
"May I look forward to your interview of [Democratic chairwoman] Sally Lyall on tomorrow's front page?" she asked. "She has been equally successful in outreach and fundraising and deserves equal recognition."
Then came the punch line. "The consistently biased reporting of your paper is an affront to nearly half of Lancaster County's voters and probably a greater percentage of your readership."
There are good answers to the questions of fairness that these readers raised.
The Benghazi story was not local. It was partisan -- one party criticizing the other. And the story was long. By publishing it in a spot where there was a good deal of room, we were able to present a full report, not a brief summary.
But the reader was right in part: The story was at the back of the paper, where casual readers might not notice it.
The profile of the Republican chairwoman was easier to defend. Whenever a new leader takes over our major political parties, we write a profile of who she is and what her goals are. We did that for Chairwoman Lyall in 2010. We'll do it for the successors to the current leaders.
It would be easy to say, glibly, that because we're getting criticized by Republicans and by Democrats, we must be doing something right.
But that is a false equivalence. Offending both sides is not a sign of success. It's a sign that we could do a better job meeting the expectations of partisan readers in both parties. I'd prefer grudging approval from these skeptical readers.
My conclusion: We have a way to go in convincing the community that we are striving to be fair. That said, I am eager to hear your assessment of our efforts to improve local reporting and fairness.
If you have opinions on either topic, please send them to me at P.O. Box 1328, Lancaster, PA 17608-1328, or eschreiber@Lnpnews.com.