With a big city like Portland to cover, The Oregonian has no short supply of conventional police stories - homicides, fatal car accidents, crimes of passion, random violence. But it wasn't until the story about a two-bit car break-in that the paper knew it had really reached its readers.
The story, last July, was one of the first products of the newly revamped Oregonian Crime Team, reflecting the changes the paper has made in its crime coverage: Reaching deeper into the community for sources; initiating more and reacting less; changing the reflex that once put any sensational crime on the front of the metro section, regardless of its impact on the community.
The Oregonian Crime Team leader Susan Gage says readers and reporters are responding positively. "I like the stories we're able to do," she says. "They're more thoughtful, more intelligent, more interesting, and they get not only a better response from readers but a better response in the newsroom.
"For a long time, we felt inferior in the newsroom. Crime is viewed as an entry-level [reporting] position. But right now we have a team of very experienced reporters - the best in the room - and they're able to sink their teeth into stories - do a little more enterprising and investigative stuff."
Gage began an exhaustive review of The Oregonian's crime coverage about a year ago when the paper volunteered to be part of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) Credibility Project. An ASNE survey found the credibility of the nation's newspapers declining, with sensationalism and bias cited among readers' biggest complaints. The Oregonian is one of eight newspapers that volunteered to change some aspect of its coverage to see if its credibility improved.
Gage reviewed the paper's crime coverage for the previous two years and surveyed readers, law enforcement officials and other newspapers about how it might be done better on a regular basis. Several months later, Gage had developed a new list of priorities for her reporters that, amounted to a whole new way to do their jobs.
"We were reactive," says Gage. "Our traditional instinct was to go, go, go, get the story. I restructured the team to be more topical and to build expertise on those topics."
In all her research, Gage heard a universal comment about traditional crime coverage: it "lacked context." Even more than the details of a crime, says Gage, readers wanted to know how it fit in to the overall crime picture - was this the first homicide of the year, for instance, or the 40th?
Another recurring comment was that the paper tended to play up sensational crimes over less "sexy" stories that actually affect more people. The crime stories people care about most, she found, often fell below the threshold for what makes news: Traffic safety or bicycle theft.
Of the eight Crime Team reporters, two have traditional beats - night cops and law enforcement/violence. And four are covering topical beats, including family crime - ranging from juvenile justice to domestic abuse and crimes against the elderly; the impact of crime, which focuses both on victims and prisons; white-collar crime; and neighborhood crime. And two legal affairs reporters now follow not just individual court cases but broader issues such as sentencing trends.
They all cover breaking news that pertains to their beat and truly major crime stories are still played on the front page. For instance, Portland had a serial killer targeting prostitutes. That was front-page news.
But more routine stories are now shorter and published inside the paper or go into boxes the paper has instituted, such as "This Week in the Courts" and "Traffic Fatalities." Front-page crime stories are more likely to be trend stories.
That brings us back to July's car break-in story.
Reporter Robin Franzen had just been assigned to cover neighborhood crime. She began receiving calls from frustrated victims of minor property crime who said police were failing to enforce petty theft laws. She had collected a couple of examples when Jackson Hindman called.
Hindman had lost his checkbook, cell phone, electronic calendar and radar detector when a thief broke into his car. But this apparently was not a very bright thief. He signed his own name to one of Hindman's checks. Hindman took the suspect's name and address to local police. But police refused to make an arrest.
Hindman became the lead to Franzen's story about non-enforcement. She got about 50 phone calls and e-mails after the story ran. "The reaction was overwhelming. So many people had had similar experiences. There was a lot of frustration," says Franzen. "That [kind of response] doesn't happen every day. I was very pleased."
So were editors, who saw the response as affirmation of their new approach.
And so was Hindman, who found that prosecutors took a new interest in his case after the story. The suspect had been taken into custody in a separate matter, but prosecutors were able to have 14 months added to his sentence as punishment for stealing Hindman's checks, Franzen reported in a follow-up.
"These stories fell below our radar screen, but they really are the things that matter to people," says Franzen. "So you have to find a new way to tell those stories. It's a whole different way to cover crime."
"It's been kind of an adjustment," adds Gage. "Before, we would come in and the slate would be clean every day and we would be reactive. We're still doing breaking stuff, but we have these other skills that weren't necessarily being exercised before that are now showcased."