All the News …

By Jeffrey Page

If in 25 years someone sits down to write about the demise of quality journalism in America, he or she might want to devote half a chapter to last Saturday’s edition of The New York Times.

Unlike some other big papers, The Times hasn’t fallen into the trap of spending its resources on the classic tabloid mix of gossip, sports, sex, news of television and movie industries, and Lindsay Lohan’s latest predicament. But then along came Page 1 of Saturday’s paper, and reasonable people are left wondering what flavor Kool-Aid the editors were sipping when, with one decision, they turned the front page into a joke.

The lead story Saturday was about a $625 million settlement of health claims by about 10,000 workers against New York City resulting from the Sept. 11 attack. An important story. Next to it was a piece about labor unions agreeing to dual wage schedules as a means of preserving their jobs. An important story.

There was a compelling story out of Port-au-Prince about Haitian canal workers joining the struggle to prevent the spread of cholera, an extremely important story that the editors buried at the bottom of the page.

It should have gone on top but was usurped by a story with this headline: “School Days Without Cuts or Cowlicks? Only in Pictures.”

School photographers, it turns out, are offering digital retouching of students’ pictures. Surely you agree that this story on Page 1 amounts to an unhealthy waste of space. The editors beg to differ; they allowed the reporter to write 33 paragraphs to tell her story. She focused on a towheaded first grader at Bay Ridge Prep in Brooklyn who went to school on picture day with a scab under his right eye, the result of a playground spill. The story then centered on the kid’s parents celebrating the photographer’s removal of the blotch, and wound up as a bizarre discussion of whether excising a kid’s blemishes is a form of revisionist family history.

Thirty-three paragraphs! And with this little fact tucked unobtrusively into the fifth graph: The practice of school photographers digitally retouching pictures of kids who don’t look so good because of their momentary or lifelong imperfections is about six years old. Meaning that story has been around since 2004.

Moreover, the reporter made a prep school kid her subject when there are 1.1 million other kids going to public schools in New York. They have picture day every year, too.

Note: The story about unions agreeing to bi-level wage schedules – an agreement that could foreshadow an extremely difficult time for organized labor in coming years – got 26 paragraphs. And the story about cholera in Haiti got 32, making it – in the freakish judgment of the editors – equal in importance to the story of parents worrying about one of the marks of childhood appearing on a school picture.

The next time some newspaper editors get together to bemoan plummeting circulation and readership figures, they ought to go back to Saturday’s Page 1. If they fail to understand that readers don’t like to be played for fools with garbage like that, they reveal that they are the fools.

Up here in the Hudson Valley, we pay $2 for a copy of the Times. For $2 we want news, not fluff about the inconveniences of the privileged class.

Jeffrey can be reached at


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