Bad Head Job

The Post leans on TV for election coverage and flubs the Big Story

TV news rules, particularly when it comes to covering fires, floods, elections and train wrecks, unless the election itself is a train wreck -- then TV news and its disciples become part of the calamity. Just ask Arnie Robbins, managing editor of the Pulitzers' pride and joy, the River City's daily paper of record.

The defense offered by Robbins and others at the Post-Dispatchfor the premature ejaculatory head "Bush Wins a Thriller" is the same one offered by German citizenry after World War II: "We were misled." In this case, the Voter News Service supplied data and projections to the networks, including CNN, and the networks made their predictions, and from that point, the herd -- or lemming -- mentality kicked in.

"Elections have become a TV media event, as much as a newspaper would hate to admit that, but they are," Robbins says. "They do pretty great exit polling, and they base it on the exit polls. They've always been very, very, very accurate" -- until last Tuesday, when somenewspapers followed the networks, all the way into the ditch.

Robbins was all over the media last week in the wake of the Post-Dispatch's own version of a "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline. He was quoted in the Chicago Tribune, USA Todayand the Wall Street Journal, explaining why the P-D,along with dozens of other papers, circulated a headline that it knew, well before dawn, was wrong. Robbins says P-D editors were caught in a "time warp," referring to Central Time Zone papers whose staffers had to interpret the reliability of a projected George W. Bush win. The first edition was "done with" at 1:10 a.m., Robbins says, and the presses started at 1:30 a.m. with "Down to the Wire" as the banner Page 1 headline. Then network-television projections started to give the election to Bush, and Al Gore made what turned out to be a retractable concession call to Bush.

Just before 2 a.m., the headline was switched to "Bush Wins a Thriller," and that press run started at close to 2:30 a.m. That version of unreality was thrown on the doorsteps of about 220,000 local readers. Later, when prognosticators reiterated, "Too close to call," Robbins says, it was too late to change the headline. Other papers were able to change an erroneous headline, but not so the Post-Dispatch."We have some distribution challenges that other papers don't have," he says, "so we can't bend our deadlines as much as some other papers."

For the Thursday edition, Robbins typed a 200-word bottom-of-Page 1 "To Our Readers" explanation of the erroneous headline in which he stated that "we called the presidential race after CNN, NBC, CBS and ABC called it." There seemed to be little pretense about it: The TV networks were at the wheel, and the P-Dwas in the backseat.

This bit of quadrennial theater is but an extreme reminder of a certain reality -- editors at daily papers (who, by and large, don't get out much) watch the noon and 5, 6 and 10 o'clock newscasts and then bug print reporters with distracting questions about the latest inane report disguised as news on a local station. That type of wag-the-dog news judgment just happened to spill over into this year's presidential-election coverage.

The most striking aspect of Robbins' explanation -- aside from its apparent honesty -- is its admission of capitulation to network television. Even the P-D's own reader advocate, Carolyn Kingcade, noted that the Tennessean in Nashville, trapped in the same "time warp," held off publication because the Associated Press hadn't yet agreed with the networks. The Postdidn't.

"When we got the information, it was like any newspaper -- "Quick, let's get the latest result in and make as many papers as we can.'" Robbins says. "What I wished we had done now was paused for 20 minutes to say, "OK, is this really right?' That 20 minutes would have been horrible, because we would have been missing paper after paper, and if we had been right, we probably would have kicked ourselves and said, "We missed a lot of papers.' But it would have been worth it, too. I wish we would have waited."

Some Posties are mumbling that the call by Robbins may have hurt his chances of becoming the paper's next editor. It's been eight months since the inscrutable Cole Campbell decided to gaze at his navel elsewhere, and word has it that Robbins is one of four finalists (with one of the others being Margaret Freivogel) in the quest to succeed him. Whoever is given the gig as editor of Pulitzer Inc.'s flagship paper, there is one nagging reality the new editor won't be able to ignore: Fewer people want his (or her) product.

During the six months ending Sept. 30, the Post's average daily circulation dropped to 294,434, compared with 304,314 during the same period the previous year, according to figures reported by the Audit Bureau of Circulations. Average Sunday circulation was down to 487,245, compared with 500,397 in the year-earlier period. A slight drop in circulation isn't tragic, as long as the newspaper is still hitting the target audience its major advertisers want. But there are limits, and sooner or later declining circulation begins to hurt the Pulitzer's profits.

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