News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 3, 2006

Max Jones: Readers deserve insight into decisions newspapers make

By Max Jones

Recent decisions by the editors of the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal to publish articles about U.S. government actions to combat global terrorism networks have once again brought the journalistic decision-making process to the forefront in the debate over media responsibility.

A newspaper’s role as government watchdog, story-teller, bulletin board and overall community nag sometimes puts it at odds with various institutional forces, primarily segments of government.

But readers are more frequently asking pertinent questions about the decisions made in newsrooms. They seem genuinely interested in what goes into our newspapers and why. That is a good thing. We’re glad they’re asking questions. More dialogue with readers about the decisions editors make will produce better, more responsive newspapers.

While it’s not my place to explain what happens at the New York Times or Wall Street Journal, it is my job to discuss what happens at the Tribune-Star. Beginning today, either I or another Tribune-Star editor will write on this page about matters affecting our newspaper. We hope to encourage dialogue and debate, but our primary purpose is to promote a better understanding of our role and responsibilities to our community of readers in Terre Haute and the Wabash Valley.

I will start the process today with a couple of concerns posed recently by readers. The first came via e-mail from Chris Colbert of Terre Haute, who questioned our decision to publish a June 4 story about former candidate for prosecutor Mike Ellis’ letter to fellow parishioners of St. George Orthodox Church.

The Ellis letter criticized at length St. George Pastor Anthony Yazge, who apparently had posted in his yard a campaign sign for one of Ellis’ opponents in the spring primary election.

“I’m not sure who at the Tribune-Star decided that Mike Ellis’s letter to fellow parishioners is news but it is my opinion that it is NOT,” Mr. Colbert wrote. “As Ellis originally requested, that kind of information should have been kept as an internal church issue … ”

Our decision to publish the story was based on several factors.

n Ellis is a public figure. He has held public office as a member of the Vigo County Council, has sought public office on numerous occasions, has worked as a deputy prosecutor, and maintains a high community profile in his private law practice.

n Ellis’ letter to at least 80 parish families was written on his official campaign letterhead and dealt with matters related to the primary election.

n Yazge, as pastor of St. George church for the past 18 years, is a prominent religious leader who is well-known in the community even beyond religious circles.

n The Ellis letter was widely distributed and was creating a significant “buzz” around town. People were talking about it and asking about it. There clearly was public interest in the matter.

After the story was published, I received a number of comments from readers. A few were critical of our decision to pursue the story. Most pertained to the story’s contents.

The second concern came via a voice-mail message from a reader upset that the killing of al-Qaida’s Iraq leader al-Zarqawi by U.S. forces did not receive more prominent placement on the front page of the newspaper on Friday, June 9.

Al-Zarqawi’s death was, indeed, a big story and deserved to be on Page 1 of our printed edition. The dynamics of the news cycle, however, led to it being placed at the bottom of Page 1 rather than the top. News of al-Zarqawi’s death broke in the early-morning hours of Thursday, June 8, too late for publication in that day’s issue.

By the time we published our June 9 edition, the news about al-Zarqawi was 24-hours old. The story had saturated Internet news sites, and dominated radio and television news throughout the previous day.

We opted to give the prime Page 1 positions to local news and feature stories about Union Hospital’s proposed expansion, the end of Ivy Tech’s aviation program, and an event related to the ongoing 200th anniversary observance of the National Road (U.S. 40).

If you have questions, comments or concerns about our news judgments or decisions, please ask. We understand that you as readers may not always agree with our choices, and we’re eager to know your thoughts and willing to explain our reasoning.

Jones can be reached at (812) 231-4336, or