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Published: Sunday, 3/16/2008

Seneca County Courthouse coverage generates questions

Steve Welty of Maumee has a problem with The Blade's Seneca County coverage. "Over the last several months I have seen story after story on the front page in regards to the Seneca County Courthouse. There is absolutely no way that this could be considered front page news for this often.

"I can see a time or two, based on little news, but it is obvious that someone got into it with one or more of the county commissioners and made it a personal issue. Why would this issue continue to be placed on the front page?"

The answer is that the editors of The Blade - including John Robinson Block, editor-in-chief - thought the issue of whether to tear down or save the Seneca County Courthouse was, and is, important and significant.

A newspaper's front page serves a number of purposes. In one sense, it is the "front window of the store," displaying what items are being offered that day. It is also a barometer of what's going on and an indication of what a newspaper thinks is both most significant and most interesting to its readers.

There have been, in fact, five front-page stories about the Seneca County courthouse issue in The Blade since the first of the year.

That much Seneca County coverage would indeed be out of place, if the role of the newspaper were merely to report official proceedings, give sports scores and election returns, and reflect what people in downtown Toledo talked about during their coffee breaks. If that were the case, The Blade might have chronicled the degeneration of Britney Spears on its front page day after day.

But a good newspaper is supposed to do more than that. A newspaper can legitimately call a community's attention to an issue it thinks matters to them.

Mr. Welty's comments remind me of the kind of criticism the Washington Post got - torrents of it - in the summer and fall of 1972. That's when the Post continued to put a story on the front page that few people seemed much interested in. "Why are you so obsessed with that Watergate nonsense?" they were asked. Even Ben Bradlee's fellow newspaper editors thought their coverage was way out of proportion. Not everyone felt that way, however.

The Blade refused to endorse Richard Nixon for re-election that fall because the newspaper felt that the Watergate stories indicated a huge culture of corruption permeating that administration.

History shows how all that turned out.

By the way, while The Blade may have showed more interest in the battle over the courthouse than many of its readers, it's hard to argue that the newspaper's focus had much of an impact.

Most Seneca County residents don't subscribe to The Blade. And while this newspaper's editorial page called for the courthouse to be preserved, that was ignored by the voters March 4. They voted almost two-to-one to tear it down.

Speaking of editorials, Mr. Welty was among several readers who had a problem with The Blade's front-page endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama in the Ohio Democratic primary. He also didn't like that we used a picture of John Robinson Block greeting Mr. Obama as he arrived at The Blade on Feb. 24.

The real issue for me was whether the editorial was properly labeled opinion, not news, and indeed it was. Showing the candidate being welcomed by the co-publisher of the newspaper did not bother me.

The Blade is, I think, entitled to a little justifiable pride that the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination thought it was important enough to pay the newspaper a visit and seek the editorial board's support. The editorial board was apparently impressed because they did endorse Mr. Obama. But Hillary Clinton won both Lucas County and the entire state.

Newspapers may provoke people to think, but the result in the presidential primary shows that on important issues, they tend to make up their own minds, whether we like it or not.

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One reader asked a question that doesn't exactly have to do with fairness, but which is bound to be on many readers' minds, given the economy. "Are all the jobs that are in the actual Sunday paper the exact same jobs that will be listed online, or does the paper have more or different jobs than what are online?"

Joseph H. Zerbey IV, vice-president and general manager of The Blade, responded: "We do not 'force' print ads on to the Web site, or vice versa. That means there are different ads for employment in both places."

"However, our Web site has thousands more because of our partnership with the Monster network (Monster.com), which includes a nationwide market."

So, if you want to see all the jobs that are out there, "the reader should look at The Blade every day, as well as our Web site, toledoblade.com."

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Anyone with a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/o The Blade, 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660, or at my Detroit office, 189 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me at 1-888-746-8610, or e-mail me at OMBLADE@aol.com. I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply.

Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.



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