A day in the life of newspapers

28th February 2003 at 00:00
By looking at newspapers across the globe with the "Times" in their title, Rod Savage captures a snapshot of a day in the life of the world and provides an insight into how newspapers work

It is Wednesday, January 29, 2003. Temperatures across the UK hover around 6degreesC. Nothing out of the ordinary for mid-week in mid winter.

Not much new or exciting underneath the steel-grey skies. Yet on this day, paper planes are flown in Costa Rica, a man tells of being held hostage by a samurai sword-wielding intruder in New Zealand, a former Chilean army general is committed for trial for events that happened in 1973 and dogs join the war against terror in Moscow. Corruption is exposed in South Africa, a small earthquake rattles Costa Rica, cyclists push their bodies to the limit under the belting Australian sun, and a British solicitor is cleared of killing her two sons.

Just another day in the life of the world as seen by newspapers: the recorders of his-tory; the mirrors - and in some instances the protectors - of society. And it is their editors, as they look at the remarkable and quite unfathomable amount of events that happen every hour of every day, who decide what constitutes news and what is important to their readers.

Robert Thomson, editor of The Times in London, and his editorial lieutenants will decide that the remarkable story of Sally Clark - jailed for life for murdering her two baby sons only to be set free today for "unsafe evidence" - should, in the next day's paper, occupy the entire broadsheet expanse of page three, plus a considerable front page "pointer" directing readers to the story.

However, a newspaper's job is not just to investigate and report on the big stories. Modern newspapers should also entertain and delight, and Wednesday, January 29 yields a wild variety of stories. The front page of The Times the next day will carry a piece about the 66,000 residents of the Welsh town Merthyr Tydfil who last year bought up big on pairs of white socks - 73,000 were bought from one supermarket alone. Reasons as varied as unusually strong winds blowing them off the washing lines to a town trying to shrug off its grimy, industrial past, will be given for this strange occurrence.

Eleven thousand miles away from London, in a small coastal holiday town called Victor Harbor in South Australia (population 12,000 as opposed to the seven million of Greater London), it's too hot for socks and the population don't care too much about Sally Clark. There's some cloud cover, it's 31degreesC and a gentle south-easterly breeze is blowing. There's not much chance of rain, in fact it's been a bone-dry month with temperatures gliding about 40degreesC. The drought conditions are of great concern to farmers across the entire country and the local weekly paper, the Victor Harbor Times, reflects this. Its managing editor Carolyn Jeffrey will put a drought story on the front page of the Thursday edition, mirroring the concerns of the 6,000 people who buy the paper each week. "The ongoing drought is now hitting close to home with dairy farmers along the Hindmarsh River facing either stagnant water-holes for their stock or saline bore water," begins the article.

The story also predicts trying times ahead for the state's dairy farmers: 63 per cent expect a drop in production for the 2002-2003 year - a loss of about 70-million litres of milk. It's not all doom and gloom, how-ever, and an upbeat and colourful story will be carried about the Tour Down Under - a European-style annual cycle race. The riders whiz through nearby Goolwa to the cheers of hundreds of fans.

Across the Tasman Sea, Nicholas Krause, editor of tri-weekly New Zealand regional the Howick and Pakuranga Times, is grappling with two stories for the front of his newspaper. The first - "a national scoop", as he describes it - is about one of the top schools in New Zealand hiring private investigators to establish the authenticity of enrolment details. The second is an interview with a man who had been held hostage for five hours in the previous week by a man who, allegedly, hacked two women with a samurai sword, shot and killed a man in a cinema car park and shot at police as they chased him. The interview is strong, with a solid first-person account of what happened, but Krause will eventually anoint the school story to lead Thursday's paper, because "the crime story has been followed up on several occasions" and their school piece will give the 36,000-circulation paper the jump on national media.

There's no such thing as too much news for a newspaper. Editors want their pages to be bursting at the seams with lively stories and "cracking yarns".

The greatest fear for any paper is the dreaded slow news day, where seemingly nothing is happening. But even on these days, news occurs. The world's slowest news day still needs to fill a newspaper.

As Lynn Berry launches herself into another hectic day at the helm of The Moscow Times, she eventually realises that Wednesday, January 29 - minus 2degreesC and snowing - is "a relatively slow news day for Russia". She is facing the tough question of what to lead the paper with - what will encourage people to pick it up tomorrow morning? Berry decides to run with a story detailing a speech from Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin, responsible for Russia's tax policy, to the country's most influential businessmen at a session of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, about lowering the tax burden on society. "Not terribly exciting," admits the editor, "but important for those living and doing business in Russia."

Tomorrow's front page will be shared by a story about "super sniffers", specially bred dogs used by airline Aeroflot to sniff out explosives and prevent terrorist attacks. A cross between Taimyr huskies and Central Asian jackals, these dogs have "the best nose in the world" according to Aeroflot. Why put this on tomorrow's front page, though? "It's both a fun read and interesting to our readers, who tend to fly more often than most," says Berry. "And, I suppose, everyone is interested in security in these uncertain times."

Uncertain times, indeed. Wednesday, January 29 sees America calling up 16,000 more reserve troops to go to the Gulf in the build up for a possible war with Iraq, and Turkey's state-owned oil company withdraws its staff from the country because of the threat.

The Khaleej Times in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, reports on five physically disabled Afghan war veterans, in the capital Abu Dhabi as part of an international peace mission, announcing they will set up a welfare organisation when they return home to support war victims in their country.

All were handicapped because of direct combat or landmine explosions during the nine-year Russian war in Afghanistan from 1979. The veterans' year-long peace mission, appealing for level heads in such heady times, will eventually find them in America on September 11, 2003. Patrick Michael, the Khaleej Times's Weekend magazine editor, says the story will lead Thursday's paper because, "at a time when the war clouds gathering thick and fast over the Iraq horizon are threatening to break and destroy lives, wreck economies, and push a country to the brink of starvation, the story of four legless and one armless Afghan war veterans on a world tour to drum up support for a just cause came as breath of fresh air.

"It reminds you of the man who complained of not having shoes until he saw a man with no feet."

Michael plans for the magazine to do a follow-up story about their quest to meet United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan.

While Moscow is moving through molasses on Wednesday, January 29, Japan - in a news sense - is jumping. Events on this huge day, that will see the Nikkei fall to its lowest level in nearly 20 years, start early: 4.15am - a South Korean man stabs his wife, son and sister-in-law, then hurls himself to his death from the ninth floor of their apartment in Shinjuku Ward, in Tokyo. Even though he's dead, police call for his prosecution for attempted murder.

7am - a father strangles his 19-year-old son to death in Kyodo, then calls police and waits for them in the same room as his son. At exactly the same time in the same area, a bus on a sightseeing mystery tour leaves for a day out - 11am - and flips over, injuring 46 people. The bus driver is charged with professional negligence.

Probably the most interesting story that occurs on this 8degreesC sunny day for the population of Japan, however, is Mongolia's Asashoryu being promoted to the highest rank in Japan's ancient sport of sumo - an almost unsurpassable honour in the country. The promotion eclipses George W Bush's State of the Union Address on most commercial television networks' morning news shows, and Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi gets the urge to send a congratulatory telegram to his Mongolian counterpart Sanjbegz Tumur-ochir.

In India, Umesh Anand, Dehli editor of The Times of India, is having a most satisfying day. A press conference is called by the non-government Centre for Science and Environment (CSE), informing the country's media that it has discovered very high levels of pesticide residues in the bottles of 17 popular bottled water brands - although the companies involved have been meeting the government's quality standards. Drinking water sold in bottles is a huge business in India as municipal supplies are so suspect that people prefer to buy bottled water.

Why should Anand be satisfied with a story that has been seemingly hand-fed to all media? "We are particularly proud of our handling of the story because others in the media, despite the press conference, didn't get the importance of the findings," he explains.

He decides to dominate the next day's front page with this story, whereas other media decide to underplay it. As a result, people will call and write in on Thursday thanking the Times of India for giving the story such prominence. Anand notes, undoubtedly with a smile, that "the competition has been forced to follow".

There can be no greater satisfaction for an editor than getting the scoop.

One way of achieving this is to have a strong investigative team, and South Africa's Sunday Times certainly has that. Its multi-award-winning investigative unit has previously exposed corruption in several government departments and in a multi-billion dollar arms deal. In the week including Wednesday, January 29, it presents its findings to the senior editorial team, including editor Mathatha Tsedu and deputy managing editor Hoosen Kolia, of another high-level investigation.

The team's story begins: "A top professor who set up his own empire on campus now stands accused of defrauding one of the country's biggest universities out of about R5 million."

The investigation found that professor Jeremy Lord, head of Natal University's Graduate School of Business, wrote and signed his own letters of appointment, landing him plum jobs as an administrator, lecturer and course leader, earning him R1.3 million on top of his annual salary of about R350,000 last year alone.

"It is a newspaper's duty to expose corruption and corruption poses the greatest threat to this young democracy," says Kolia.

A rather lesser threat is speeding motorists and a community north-west of Pretoria decides this week to take the law into its own hands by digging holes in the M35 road. It seems to work, as the local council will now repair the road and build speed humps.

Whether you live north-west of Pretoria or north-east of Washington, traffic makes good fodder for newspapers. So when a judge in Baltimore chooses January 29 to criticise that city's use of radar cameras as a revenue source rather than for public safety, The Washington Times will run the story on its front page on Thursday.

"A pet peeve of ours has been Washington's use of automatic radar cameras at traffic lights and on its streets to raise revenue," says managing editor Francis Coombs. He goes on to explain that while the paper is based in Washington, "we have a number of readers in nearby Baltimore and its environs". The story will also raise a cheer among those caught by radar cameras, whether in Baltimore or Washington.

Stories about changes in social trends are more often than not seen as worthy of coverage in newspapers and the demise of Tupperware parties also catches the attention of Coombs on this day. The "trend story" will appear on Thursday's page two in the regular section Culture, Etc and carry the headline: "A Trendy Party Is In The Bag - Purses now beat plastic as a fun way to meet, eat and sell at home."

It tells of how young women are now going to purse parties, where handbags by trendy companies such as Posh Purses and A Sow's Ear - or even illegal rip-offs of designer bags - are going on sale in people's home. "We often run stories like this as a counter to the heavy political and foreign policy news that dominates our news pages," says Coombs.

While a judge in Baltimore is making a ruling on radar cameras, a judge in Fifth Criminal Court in Santiago, Chile, delivers some heavy news to retired Army General Pedro Espinoza Bravo, on a day that reaches a sweltering 33degreesC. The former general finds out that he is to stand trial, accused of ordering the kidnappings of 12 people who were detained in the La Moneda presidential palace on September 11, 1973 and later disappeared.

Former Army General Bravo is no stranger to kidnapping and disappearance charges. In July, 2002 he was released on bail for the disappearance of a journalist and in November 2001 he was also released on bail from an extradition request by an Argentinian judge, this time for the murder of a former army commander and his wife.

Three thousand miles north of Santiago, in Costa Rica, the earth moves on Wednesday, January 29 for the residents of the Central Pacific beach town of Quepos. An earthquake, registering 3.9 on the Richter scale, strikes at 10.35am. No one is injured and no damage results.

In September, 2002, an earthquake measuring 4.8 on the Richter scale hit Dudley in England's West Midlands and made front-page news across the UK.

Yet earthquakes are so common Central America that The Tico Times, a weekly, will devote only a handful of words to it in Friday's paper.

Almost as many words are devoted to announcing - on the newspaper's website on Wednesday - a paper-aeroplane contest (starting 3pm sharp!). Friday's print edition will not announce the eventual winner.

Under the spotlight, Wednesday, January 29 seemed like a wild and historic day. Yet who can remember what they did themselves on that day, let alone what the big news stories were? It was simply a day in the life of the world, no more remarkable than the day before or the day after. And when it finally drew to a close, so did the newspapers around the world that recorded it. In newspaper-speak, Wednesday, January 29 simply represented another edition being "put to bed".

Their editors, probably exhausted after more than 12 hours of constant decision-making, followed suit, only to be up and at 'em again on the morning of Thursday, January 30, faced with empty pages ready to be filled.

What with? Possibly more exposed corruption or bus accidents, or murders, or shots fired at police, or protests against war with Iraq.

But, in all probability, not another paper-plane contest in Costa Rica.

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