Orlando Sentinel endorses Romney does it matter
Tampa Bay Times endorses Barack Obama

Why was the Nelson-Mack debate kept off some front pages?

This first appeared in Columbia Journalism Review.

PenheadBy Brian E. Crowley

One of the shameful things about Florida’s US Senate race is that the two candidates, Democratic incumbent Bill Nelson and Republican challenger, Congressman Connie Mack, agreed to meet in just one debate.

That statewide television debate was Wednesday night. And while it was extensively covered by the media, I was amazed that some of the state’s newspapers did not put their stories on the front page Thursday morning.

My view is that in making that choice, they did a serious disservice to Florida voters. This is an important race not only for Floridians but for the nation, as the contest could help determine which political party will control the US Senate.

It’s true that the content of the hour-long debate left much to be desired (the candidates argued at length about a tax credit for cows on Nelson’s property, and whether Mack was claiming more than one homestead exemption), but as an editor I would have done what most Florida newspapers did—played the debate story prominently on A1.

Editors at The Palm Beach PostThe Miami Herald, and the Tallahassee Democrat took a different route, pushing their stories to the inside pages. The clear signal to readers was that these newspapers did not deem the debate—and by extension, the Senate race—important, and perhaps neither should the readers.

Sergio Bustos, the Herald’s state/political editor, disagrees. In an emailed explanation of the Herald’s decision, Bustos wrote:

The fact that a story doesn’t appear on the front page of the print edition doesn’t mean Herald readers are any less informed. That assumes they don’t read beyond the front page. Also, the debate was televised live throughout Florida on 11 television stations, including our South Florida market. Any voter could have watched the debate, which we publicized with an advance story that ran in print and online. 

And the newspaper is only one avenue for our stories. We featured it on our homepage—our website’s front page, if you will—throughout the night and into the early morning. In fact, it’s still on our homepage and has drawn about 183 comments. And our public radio news partners at WLRN featured the story on the WLRN/Miami Herald news on Thursday morning. 

Besides, the debate didn’t break any new ground. Some of the accusations made about Mack’s past were first reported by The Miami Herald, and our partners at the Tampa Bay Times wrote extensively about Nelson’s farm tax loophole for his property. We ran that story on the front page. 

Bottom line is that this Mack/Nelson race has been a low-key campaign. The two candidates have mostly battled over the airwaves with television ads. It is also competing for attention with an intense presidential contest.

First, let me make clear that the Herald has done an excellent job covering the 2012 election, often setting the pace for the rest of the Florida media. And the Herald did a good job with its debate night story.

But not putting their coverage on the front page was a mistake. What the Herald told readers was that the debate was not important as this (admittedly fun) front-page headline: “Florida man busted in dinosaur smuggling caper.”

Nick Moschella, content editor at The Palm Beach Post (where I worked for 28 years), explained in an email that there had been “a spirited debate among editors about how we should play Nelson-Mack.”

Moschella continued:

In the end, we liked our mix of stories on the front, including three political pieces that, we believe, have more impact on our readers. 

Two involve potential issues for Florida’s voters—flawed absentee ballots in Palm Beach County and the criminal investigation into suspect registration documents

The other was a follow-up on Tuesday night’s bare-knuckles presidential debate as Palm Beach County prepares to host the finale. 

We did have a staff writer at the Senate debate, and we used mug shots of both candidates to create a more significant front-page tease to what turned out to be a contentious, if not entertaining, face-off.

Most Florida newspapers did give the debate prominent front-page display, among them the Orlando SentinelThe News-Press of Fort Myers, the St. Lucie News TribuneThe Ledger of Lakeland, The St. Augustine RecordThe Tampa Tribune, and the Tampa Bay Times. The Sun Sentinel managed to squeeze a couple of graphs about the debate at the bottom of its front page, apparently unwilling to give up space for an adjoining story: “More inmates sue to get dental floss.”

On the same day that the Herald and Post kept the debate story off their front pages,Newsweek announced that it is abandoning print and going all-digital in 2013. Some believe that the same fate is inevitable for the print editions of newspapers. I think they are right. But whether the future is digital or paper, news judgment will be central to success. In this case, not putting the debate on the front page sent the wrong message to readers.


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

The comments to this entry are closed.