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Hey, stupid! That ain't news no more!

Thursday, August 19, 2004

A great myth of journalism is that newspapers choose to print bad news because it sells papers. At most, a natural disaster or particularly heinous crime might spike sales of newspapers from racks for a single issue, but there's no net increase in circulation.

The fact is, newspapers report the news -- good or bad -- for exactly one reason: it's news. Admittedly that's a subjective concept, but a working definition is: news is whatever people are talking about at the coffee shop, in the break room, on the golf course and in the teachers' lounge.

Real estate agents don't like to see bad news in the paper, and they don't hesitate to tell us. Neither do other business people who want to see new residents move to the area. They complain that bad news frightens away the prospective customers and clients they need to grow their businesses.

Offhand, we can think of two legitimate reasons why a newspaper might stop publishing bad news -- there's no bad news to report, or there's so much bad news it's no longer really news. Sadly, we find ourselves in the latter situation.

When the first methamphetamine lab was busted in the county, that was big news. The drug problem was supposed to be an urban issue, but it had hit us here in rural Arkansas. But now our law enforcement agencies are busting meth labs every week. Manufacturers of meth are being convicted and sentenced to prison every session of the circuit courts in the tri counties.

It's not happening only here. It's a national problem. But if you think the problem is worse here than in other parts of the country, it's not your imagination; it really is. The Ozarks region, on both sides of the Arkansas/Missouri border, has the country's highest per capita concentration of meth labs. Roughly half of all prison inmates in Arkansas are serving time for drug offenses, and the Arkansas Department of Corrections can't build new facilities fast enough to keep up with the new prisoners.

Sharp County Sheriff Dale Weaver says meth crime touches every one of us; a family member, a friend or a neighbor is making it or using it or is a victim of a crime committed by someone using it. And even the few not touched directly are still paying more for police protection and corrections.

None of this is news to you if you have been reading the paper. But as we report on meth busts week after week, it ceases to be news -- like reporting on a heat wave in the Sahara.

In our editorial staff meeting last week, we decided it's time to reduce our coverage of drug busts. The bigger busts will still get full coverage. But most arrests can be adequately covered in a police brief.

It's not because of so many complaints about the negative news on the front page. Nor is it because drug crimes are no longer important. It's just a matter of facing the reality of the times we're living in.

In the musical Newsies, paperboys in New York City hawk their newspapers on the street by calling out the most sensational headlines. One newsie cries, "Crooked politician!"

Another newsie responds, "Hey, stupid! That ain't news no more!"

We look forward to the day when a drug crime is news again in the tri counties.