Make Darn Sure You Put the Bad News on the Front Page!

August 15th, 2005 12:10 AM

So, have you noticed that gas prices are heading higher?

The San Francisco Chronicle certainly has. In fact, after reading this Sunday's front-page article on the subject, as well a business section cover story from the same issue, one gets the sense that the economy is about to crumble at any moment as a result.

Of couse, that's if you only read the portion of these articles on the covers of their respective sections, for inside the body of the paper, things are mysteriously much less dire:

Gas, oil: Families finally feeling the pinch; Experts ask how high the price can rise before economy tanks

“America's economy might not be able to stomach oil at $66 a barrel. Not easily, at least.”

“According to some surveys, the consumers whose spending pulled America out of its post-Internet slump aren't buying at their former torrid pace. Half of those households polled by a shopping mall trade association last month said gas prices had forced them to cut back.”

It sure seems that Halloween has come early to Northern California, doesn’t it? If only the Bay Area was exclusively afflicted, one could just alter one’s paper of choice.

Unfortunately, this strategy has become so typical of most mainstream editors these days that the scary facets of seemingly all stories now come at the beginning of the articles.

So, it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise that one has to get to the tenth paragraph of this story before a little sunshine is allowed to break through the gloom providing the reader with some treats to counter the front-page tricks:

“Plenty of economists disagree.

“They acknowledge that high fuel prices are squeezing family and business finances. Still, they note, the economy is growing at a healthy clip, adding jobs, even though oil prices have been above historic norms for more than a year. As long as prices rise slowly, they say, the economy has time to adjust.

"'I don't see any signs, in terms of the macro-economy, that anything's going into the soup,’ said Stanford University economist James Sweeney. ‘I don't anticipate, at this price level, that we're going to have any large macro-economic dislocations.’"

Sadly, one has to turn a few pages to see that quote from Mr. Sweeney. Once there, the reader is presented with a significantly more glowing analysis of how the economy is performing today -- quite well, thank you very much! -- along with the possibility that energy prices at this level might not end the world as we know it.


However, just in case you’re one of those wacky, financial eggheads that read the business section before anything else -- such people need to be rounded up and deported! -- the Chron has an article prominently displayed on the cover of your favorite section specifically designed to make your Sunday morning coffee taste a little more acidic than usual. Frankly, I’m surprised the editors didn’t cover all the bases by placing a similar article in the sports section:

Economic signs strong, but worries persist; Rise in home prices, oil, wages cause of underlying malaise:

“Strong consumer spending, solid job growth and rising levels of personal income have spurred optimism in financial markets that the economic expansion is rolling along despite a series of interest rate increases by the Federal Reserve.

“Yet rising oil prices, worrisome signals from the housing market and a squeeze on hourly wages all mar what would otherwise be a pretty macroeconomic picture of solid growth without inflation.”

Much like its cover-page counterpart, this article by Tom Abate becomes startlingly less pessimistic once one turns a few pages to B4. Unfortunately, most readers have likely impaled themselves on a samurai sword before they get that far due to the misery evoked by the first six paragraphs, and, as a result, never learn that things aren’t nearly as bad as Tom suggests on page B1.

Which brings us to the key point: Few people read the continuation of articles from the cover-page to inside the body of the newspaper. Editors count on this, and regularly place all of the bad news associated with an article on the cover while burying the positives in the deep recesses where few venture.

As such, why even bother including any contrary positive viewpoints unless they go on the cover along with the gloom and the doom?

Or, would that just be too much like reporting the news?

(Talk amongst yourselves. I’ve got to go call my broker and my realtor to start selling all of my worldly possessions before the economy tanks!!!)