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Monday, September 10, 2012

The case of the escaped pigs

By Dick Hirsch

I don’t mind admitting I’ve been doing it every single day for years and I have no plans to quit. This is not just a habit. It far surpasses the habitual category; it qualifies as an important part of my life and if I don’t do it I feel sluggish, bereft and jittery.

I am talking about reading the morning newspaper. Like many members of my generation I worry about the future of print journalism in the face of the rising tide of competition from the Internet. I am not a confirmed Luddite. Of course I routinely check my computer for news but it just isn’t the same. Even when the identical story is published on a newspaper’s own web site for me it doesn’t have the same impact as reading it on newsprint.

Here is an example, a story I found a few weeks ago in The Oneonta Daily Star. The headline read:

“Officer captures 1 of 2 pigs loose in Oneonta.”

Before we continue please ask yourself whether you would have read that story or whether you would have skipped over to an article about a City Council debate on reconstruction of a sewer line. I bet on the missing pigs.

The pig story began: “One of two pigs reported Sunday to be on the loose in Oneonta has been caught. The Oneonta Police Department is on the lookout for the other, Chief Dennis Nayor said Wednesday. “Callers reported the pigs were seen behind Morabito’s on Carbon Street.”

A three column photo of Tim Cuozzo, the animal control officer who took the pig into custody, accompanied the story, which detailed the successful investigation, apprehension and detention of the one and the search for the second. The story, by reporter Denise Richardson, also contained further details about the local ordinance that prohibits harboring domesticated pigs.

The pig was turned over to a local veterinarian who reported she was gratified that authorities did not resort to force in the capture. Instead a trap was baited with cat food. The vet reported the animal was frightened but in otherwise good condition, and available for adoption and placement in a suitable setting.

I was on a brief  visit to the Oneonta area when I picked up a copy of the paper, spotted the pig story on page 3, and immediately read it. I would imagine it was one of the best read items in whole edition. Why? Because it was a unique story with strong local interest, exactly the kind of news that differentiates true local coverage with the brain-numbing news reports that consume so much time and space in every medium.

The late Congressman Thomas P. ”Tip” O’Neill, once Democratic Speaker of the House of Representatives, is famously remembered for this axiomatic observation: “All politics is local.” Directly related to that opinion would be a similar comment about news; local news is the most valuable commodity for newspapers.

Warren Buffett stressed that approach in June when he paid $142 million and bought 63 supposedly failing newspapers. At the time he advised: “I believe newspapers that intensively cover their communities will have a good future.” The job of each editor, he said, is to make the paper indispensable to anyone who cares about what is going on in the city or town...”thoroughly covering all aspects of area life, particularly local sports.” That would include intense coverage of public hearings before various agencies, obituaries and feature stories regarding individuals and organizations. I’m sure that Buffett would have blessed the story about the capture of the one pig and the dragnet for the other.

What makes news? It has an indefinable quality but the compelling stories are the ones that affect the most people as well as those that are somewhat unique. One well-remembered adage often recalled by editors is this: “If a man bites a dog, that’s news.” The pig story certainly qualified in the Oneonta area and you can be certain that Officer Cuozzo saved a clipping.

Don’t underestimate the value of the clipping as a keepsake. It is one enduring advantage offered by print journalism that is unique, a benefit that cannot be duplicated by other purveyors of news on the Internet. Would the text of an Internet article laser printed on a sheet of bond paper ever qualify for pasting in anyone’s scrapbook? I doubt it. Will the historic or sentimental appeal of the clipping help to save print journalism? Time will tell. Remember: you read it here first.




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