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Taking Things Personally

Focusing On Personalities--and Their Bodies--in the Sun's New Look

By Martin L. Johnson | Posted 10/8/2008

On Sept. 1, Baltimore Sun columnist Susan Reimer published a column on Sarah Palin, the mercurial Republican candidate for vice president.

Published at the crescendo of the first wave of Palinmania, the column (tellingly titled "A Woman--But Why This Woman?") was highly critical of the Palin selection, which Reimer suggested was made to kowtow to special-interest groups on the right.

"I thought it was a natural topic for me," Reimer says in a phone interview. "She billed herself as a hockey mom, and I have billed myself as a soccer mom all these years. As the column clearly shows, I was very animated on the topic, personally and professionally."

But Reimer, who has been writing columns for the Sun for 16 years, wasn't ready for what happened next. The day after her column appeared, the Drudge Report, which gets close to 30 million site visits daily, linked to it as an example of media criticism of the Palin pick. Then the deluge started.

"By noon that day, there were thousands of posts at the bottom of the column," she says. "Almost immediately I got 700 e-mails. And our web people said that by the time the dust settled, there were in the high 300,000 page views."

The rapid--and, according to Reimer, surprisingly negative--response to the column happened soon after the Sun debuted its redesigned newspaper. While the paper's elimination of standalone business and state sections are the most significant changes, equally important is the paper's emphasis on its news and lifestyle columnists. Full-body shots replace the head shots that have long accompanied newspaper columnists. Columns run in higher-profile places in the paper, including the front page.

Editor Tim Franklin says in a phone interview that the paper is using its columnists to strengthen the paper's connection with its readers.

"One of the problems of the newspapers over the past few years is that they're too often viewed as these remote, distant, even cold institutions," he says. "I think it helps build reader loyalty and helps create more of a long-term bond. In some ways it's not dissimilar to a relationship between TV news viewers and anchors. Anchors become part of the family for most people, you see them and listen to them, and you're making the same kind of connections."

The new prominence of the Sun's columnists is coming at the intersection of two divergent media trends. According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, newspaper readers--or, in Pew's parlance, "media consumers"--can be divided into four major groups. At one end are "traditionalists," an older population that still reads newspapers in print and watches the evening news on television, and at the other are the "Disengaged," those who spend very little time with the news.

In the middle are two groups that are likely responsible for much of Reimer's web traffic: First are the "Net-Newsers," which make up 15 percent of the population, get most of their news online, often from short articles or videos. (In April of this year, the Tribune Co. launched the weekday daily b in part to appeal to this group.) Next are what the study calls "Integrators," middle-aged, well-educated media consumers who have kept their old media habits and added online consumption of more news about sports, politics, and similar event-driven areas. Making up 23 percent of the population, this group is demanding more from the media than it provided in the past.

Sun columnists, like their counterparts at other papers, have responded to these two groups by making themselves more available through blogs, videos, and other web-based formats. The paper also recently started a news column on crime, penned by Peter Hermann. Franklin says that Hermann's print columns and blog posts represent a new approach to journalism.

"One of our editors coined them `blogumns,' a combination of columns and blogs. It helps foster interaction between the reader and the paper," he says. "It also bridges the print and online worlds. We often get criticized for not doing enough street-level reporting. Peter's column is intended to be a ground-level look at crime and justice issues in the city."

Carl Sessions Stepp, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland who has written on the changing newsroom, says in a phone interview that the internet, which is now a primary or secondary source of news for a some media consumers, has encouraged journalists and columnists alike to promote their own voices over the voices of the institutions they work for.

"Journalists have professional expertise," he says. "They're good information evaluators and information presenters. The nature of the internet is for people to talk in their own voices rather than their institutional voice. The expectation is that the news is going to be coming at you in a personalized way."

Franklin says that while there are no immediate plans to expand its news coverage through columnists like Hermann, the paper's use of columnists in order to attract readers has historical precedent.

"If you look through newspaper history, columnists and personalities have played a critical role in defining newspapers and drawing readership," Franklin says. "Provocative, well-reasoned, and sometimes entertaining columnists can provide a personality and voice to the newspaper.

At the same time, Reimer says that she and other columnists were less happy about the paper's decision to use full-body pictures of them with their columns.

"None of us are thrilled about this," she says. "We all figured that if we were better looking, we'd be in the movies."

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Tags: susan reimer, baltimore sun, sarah palin

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