Thursday, September 23, 2004

You have one chance to handle the story of a prominent person's death correctly.
I pointed out in an earlier Turner Report how The Lamar Democrat botched its coverage of the death of O'Sullivan Industries founder Tom O'Sullivan earlier this year. For a man who brought economic prosperity to the entire area and whose philanthropic tendencies were legendary, a story and a small picture in a corner of page one were totally inadequate. It should have been a banner headline with a long retrospective of his life, complete with photos and comments from top officials and O'Sullivan workers alike.
But at least The Democrat put the story on page one.
Handling the story of a well-known person's death is always difficult and The Joplin Globe faced that situation in today's edition. Gary Garton had worked there for more than a quarter of a century. To people in certain parts of the Tri-State area, Gary Garton was The Joplin Globe.
I never knew Gary Garton, though I was flattered once when I was compared to him. The one similarity we had (at least as far as I know) was each of us could turn out a large number of stories in a short amount of time and neither of us had our accuracy questioned very often.
Mr. Garton also wrote a popular Sunday column in the Globe. He was a fixture in Globe households. The story of his passing should have been on page one.
To give the Globe editors credit, a small photo of him was placed above the banner at the top of the page with the headline "Longtime Globe reporter dies," directing readers to the story on page three. The story, written by Debby Woodin, covered all of the bases perfunctorily, but did little to actually tell what Gary Garton was all about. There were quotes galore, but no stories. And stories, especially to an old newspaperman, are what make newspapers worth reading.
It would have been understandable if Mr. Garton's story was on page three because of a raft of big ticket news items on page one. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case. The choices appear to have been made simply on the basis of the best photos the Globe had and the biggest scandal it could find.
How else can you explain the presence of a story and photo of the month-old Janet Jackson/Super Bowl fiasco. The other stories: Neosho is hoping to stop a leak that is draining the city's water system. Hey, another story about Neosho and its historic buildings, complete with three photos, one of them a large, vertical shot. The Globe must be pushing subscriptions in Neosho this week. Or how about the story about Galena giving its ex-city manager severance pay. Oh, there was a Joplin story (a vanishing breed) on page one. The city may move its rifle range because of problems with stray bullets.
I would be the last person to deny that these stories (except maybe the Janet Jackson story) belong in the Globe. But what kind of message are you sending the readers (and Mr. Garton's longtime co-workers) when you treat those stories with more respect than you do the passing of a fixture in area journalism.
You only have once chance to get the death story right.
The Globe blew it.

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