Explaining “Baby Seal” Stories

Every so often I have people call up and complain about the amount of coverage we devote to a particular story.

“How many times are you going to write about it?” is usually how the line of questioning goes.

My answer is normally a variation of this: “Whatever it takes to give the full story, from start to finish.”

It’s an approach most general circulation newspapers take with regard to major developments. You don’t just write about the start of an event and its resolution — you cover everything in-between. A stellar example would be Watergate. A not-so-stellar example would be the Clinton-Lewinsky affair.

What happens on any given day is going to dictate coverage, and big breaking news will often trump continuing coverage, but newspapers often strive to demonstrate mastery and committment to the stories they’re pursuing.

In addition, newspapers can’t make the assumption that everyone sees every story — so when there’s a follow-up story, that’s often why you’ll see background material. It’s there in case the reader missed the previous story and needs to be filled in, or to provide general context and support for the newer material.

And when you’re a reporter, you often get excited about each new development that makes you keep chasing and writing about every new angle to that story.

I learned it as a young reporter in Montana covering a serial arsonist burning down the town I was living in, and I took the same approach — and had success — with covering legal debates in the 1990s for our sister paper, Pennsylvania Law Weekly, a lot of them centered around things like limited tort, bad faith and governmental immunity.

Now, if you haven’t figured it out yet, journalists are often full of mirth and gallow’s humor. And when things are boring, you try to say and do things to keep the newsroom lively.

So once, after I had written my umpteenth article on what constituted a “serious injury” for limited tort purposes, one of my co-workers started kidding me about how many I intended to write.

“Plenty more,” was my response. “It’s a baby seal story.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“I’m going to beat it to death.”

After her shock wore off she laughed and forgave me. (And just for the record, I love animals and think killing baby seals is awful — and while many might think it unnecessary that I provide that disclaimer, I’ve learned the hard way over the years that quite a few animal lovers don’t have a sense of humor about our furry friends). But since then, that’s the term I’ve always used to describe relentless coverage of an issue.

So twisted humor or not, I still believe in that approach when readers are interested in a story. It certainly doesn’t apply in every case. But when it does, it tends to pay off.

For instance, when we broke the story on the Buchanan Ingersoll-Klett Rooney merger, we knew it was something we had to cover the hell out of. Pennsylvania hadn’t seen an in-state merger of that size in some time and the result was going to potentially be the largest firm in PA. We called around; people (not firm management) called us. We wound up writing roughly four stories over about a week-and-a-half: first on the news of the merger talks, then on how there was a question whether Klett’s labor group in Philly was going to make the move to BI, then on the scheduled vote and some of the concerns being talked about, and finally on the aftermath of the vote and the completion of the merger.

A number of people, both inside the firm and out, said they were surprised how much inside information we found out and got right.

But a few weeks after the stories ran, one person complained to me about all the stories and basically implied we were giving the firms — now firm — free publicity. Which was absurd, especially when you consider that managment at both firms would have probably been happier had we not written the first three stories. Or when you consider the fact that some of the material dealt with whether lawyers wanted to make the move or contained quotes from sources questioning whether the merger made sense or not.

Despite this person’s dissatisfaction with all the coverage, people were reading. How do I know? Simple — heavy Web traffic on the days those stories ran, feedback from readers and sources, etc. Virtually everone I talked to on the phone or met with in person was talking about it. There was a buzz in the community over it and our coverage simply reflected that.

That’s basically how it works. We write about the news. If we get an indication there’s more to the story or people want to know more, then we pursue it. That’s what guides us, regardless of whether a person or institution is going to look good or bad. For instance, in the case of the BI-Klett story, if the merger doesn’t work out, guess what? We’ll be writing a lot about that too.

It’s not just limited to law firm stories either. We do it with cases that we follow from the common pleas all the way to the state Supreme Court, as well as judicial administration stories, verdicts, judicial elections, legislation, etc. If we’re covering something repeatedly, it’s because we think the story merits it — and people in the community have said so too.

–Hank Grezlak, Editor-in-Chief 

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