By: Gene Ruffini
Survey of editors and other industry experts reveals steps
newspapers are taking as they move toward the 21st century and
face increased competition for readers and advertisers
NEWSPAPERS ARE IN a period of transition as they move toward the 21st century and face increasing competition for readers and advertising from other media.
The additional demands for a reader’s time come not only from broadcast media but from new technologies providing information in and out of the home.
A random survey of editors and other experts shows that many editors are meeting the challenge by stressing the advantages of newspapers that distinguish them from electronic media.
At the same time, there is an effort by many newspapers to adapt the ethics and techniques of other media by increased use of color, graphics and other design changes.
The innovations also include use of new marketing methods and, for instance, in the case of the Orange County Register, a broader definition of what is news.
However, the transition is uneven and uncertain, and also carries with it warnings of possibly going too far in the areas of glitz, gloss and reader accommodation in order to be competitive.
Interviewed in the minisurvey were Max King, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer; Ron Martin, editor of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution; Louis Heldman, executive editor of the Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat; Tonnie Katz, editor of the Orange County Register; and Warren Phillips, retired editor of the Wall Street Journal.
Also, Rem Reider, editor of the American Journalism Review; Dr. William Winter, executive director of the American Press Institute; Professor Ernest Hynds, head of the journalism department in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Georgia; Professor Conrad Fink, director of the James M. Cox Institute for Newspaper Management Studies at the University of Georgia; Professor Jay Rosen, director of graduate studies at the New York University journalism department; and Joan Konner, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Last, but certainly not least, Clifford May, associate editor of the Rocky Mountain News of Denver, who reported on the findings of a survey sent to editors of 150 papers of more than 100,000 circulation on the future of newspapers.
The survey was prepared under the aegis of the Future of Newspapers Committee of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, chaired by Louis Heldman, executive editor of the Tallahassee Democrat.
A consensus of those interviewed shows these major recommendations, not necessarily in order of importance, about the direction to be taken by newspapers:
? More analysis, commentary and interpretation.
? Greater stress on local coverage.
? Use of color and graphics in conjunction with substantive content.
? More investigative reporting.
? More series.
? Crusades leading to the righting of wrongs.
? Provision of useful advice or techniques to help people in their everyday activities.
? Better writing.
? More recognition that newspapers are competing with other media for a reader’s time and have to make it easier for readers to get the information they want.
May noted that the strategies and suggestions made by editors replying to the ASNE survey would be relevant even if television did not exist because they addressed several basic questions, such as: “”What is the role of a newspaper? How does it fit into the community? How is it made relevant to a reader? That’s really what everybody is talking about.””
The questionnaire consisted of four parts, including 24 true-or-false questions and essays. Generally, editors were asked if they considered television a competitor or an ally, how television and newspapers influenced each other to play a particular story, and how newspapers could best use their strengths. Additional comments were also welcomed.
Based on an analysis of the material, May said there was the basic, obvious agreement that, while television excelled in breaking news stories with powerful visual elements, newspapers excelled in presenting more complicated stories.
One attitude expressed was that “”First is not always better,”” he said, adding that readers appreciated the analysis and expertise a newspaper brought to a story seen earlier on television.
At the same time, many editors replied they would not be influenced by the play television news gave a story, but would make their own distinctions about relevance and importance.
As for the approach on a story, some editors leaned toward reaction or a second-day angle, throwing the story ahead rather than just repeat, even with more depth, what television has already reported.
For example, an editor noted that following a World Series game, next-day emphasis in his paper was on the game coming up ? if there were one ? on the assumption that the results of the previous game were already widely known.
As for comprehensiveness and detail in stories, some editors also argued a longer story is not necessarily a better one, May said.
“”The approach they were using was to have a digest or a capsule form of the story for the reader to take a look at and decide if that were all that reader wanted, or did that reader want the longer form?
“”These editors argued you needed to give the reader more control over the newspaper that way, not just more information in the belief that, of course, they would want to read longer stories.
“”They would have more control, and that is one of the things that a newspaper provides that television does not. You can save it, read it twice, and study it.””
Many editors said these are the features that a number of newspapers do not market as well as they should, May added.
While editors felt that tv “”could not hold a candle”” to newspapers in the presentation of local news, newspapers were “”getting their butt kicked”” in the area of international news, May said. Strategies developed by some newspapers in this regard were to find local angles in international events and present additional analysis.
Editors also remarked that tv news is often negative “”because they have to cover all the fires, murders and mayhem,”” giving newspapers an opportunity to balance the situation with good-news items.
Many editors noted that newspapers can also involve themselves in their communities in better ways than can television news operations, including the sponsorship of such community events as forums, meetings with community leaders, jazz festivals, debates, science and music awards.
The increased need for investigative reporting was called for by many editors, May declared.
“”The watchdog function of newspapers was recognized as important and something that newspapers can carry out better than does television news,”” May said.
While many papers joined with television news organizations in conducting polls and surveys, the Boston Globe, for one, warned that such alliances could compromise a newspaper’s coverage of that broadcast organization.
Another editor pointed out that papers not only compete with television for the time of a prospective reader but also with movies, videotapes, and games, hobbies, household chores, etc. The argument was made that “”If newspapers are to compete successfully, they have to be compelling. Never risk being boring,”” May continued. “”If people cannot read you, they won’t. There’s a triage process taking place.””
Aside from the ASNE survey and the consensus points previously listed, here are some additional comments made by those interviewed:
Heldman of the Tallahassee Democrat noted that, while color and design are essential to today’s newspapers, the latter has to come out of discussion and thought about content, and “”redesign without rethinking is a waste of time.””
The change in the Democrat most appreciated by readers, he said, were the summaries presented at the top of stories. Heldman likened these to the decks used by 19th-century papers.
The idea was to allow the readers more of an option to read on or not or to go elsewhere in the paper to find information of use to them.
King of the Inquirer outlined four strategies his paper is pursuing to build readership and improve content:
? More suburban coverage in the form of sections that function as “”a newspaper within a newspaper.””
? “”Design and layout from a standpoint of convenience, not flash and glitz.””
? “”More stories and features that deal with the everyday concerns of people.””
? “”Most importantly, explanatory journalism which attempts to show what a story really means, but without any injection of subjective opinion.””
King also pointed out that television also competes with newspapers in the presentation of issues within fictional series, such as L.A. Law, which “”we ought to be thinking about . . . I don’t mean portray fictional situations.
“”You can take a real situation ? a real issue ? and I think the best newspapers do this already, and try to report out not just the basics of the issue but report out the narrative about the situation, report on real people in real circumstances affected by this issue, and tell it ? drawing on the narrative traditions of newspapers ? as a story, a true story.””
King added that while the ’80s might have been considered “”The Age of Information,”” the ’90s might be called “”The Age of Complexity,”” and “”this plays well to the strengths of newspapers which are able to explain the interrelated meaning of things.””
Another editor, Glenn Ritt of The Record, Hackensack, N.J., outlined some of the strategies that help his color-enhanced paper, about six miles from New York City, cope in a large urban and media-packed market.
“”We recognize the immediacy of television and that an awful lot of people get their primary information from television, but we also recognize who is our market,”” said Ritt. “”We spent a lot of time learning about our potential and current readership and work very hard to develop in-depth, unique approaches to topics of most interest to people, from health to education to workplace to transportation.””
As other newspapers strive to do, the Record aims to find local angles to major national and international news stories, Ritt said, and “”if we put a story on the front page the following morning that has been prominently displayed on television the previous night, we had better be able to add dimension and relevance to our coverage.””
Ron Martin of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution said, “”Television is the least of our worries these days,”” pointing to the competition posed by the emerging technologies.
“”We are thinking about ‘How can we best plug into the telephone technology, video technology and fax technology, and keep our eyes on other things that are beginning to develop to see how we can also move information through those methods?’ “”
At the same time, the papers are meeting the challenge of the technologies in finding ways to make them more readable, more accessible, more useful and better for readers.
“”We are focusing on subject matter, the stories, and what is really important in Atlanta now. We want to put together a paper that is appealing and still grab readers and answer questions they have about all kinds of things.””
Professor Fink, a former Associated Press vice president, said newspapers have to find ways to join in enterprises using the technology and not resist them.
In his view, the battle with tv news was “”one fought years ago, and newspapers have no problem with television as presently constituted . . . . No one believes that television news eliminates the need for newspapers or that newspapers eliminate the need for television news. An accommodation has been reached.””
Dean Konner of Columbia also believes that television and newspapers are more complementary to each other than competitive. Regarding new and different beats, Konner said one of those she would like established within papers would center on children, including their disadvantages in society, health issues, etc.
A paper which has taken bold, new approaches to beats is the Orange County Register. Editor Tonnie Katz said the Register has “”broadened the definition of what is news and tried to get inside news so that what you see on television will lead you to what is in the paper and what is in the paper will lead you to what is on television.””
The Register, whose many reader-oriented innovations include the assignment of a reporter to cover malls full time, is part of Freedom Newspapers Inc., which owns many weekly newspapers and a 24-hour cable news operation in Orange County.
“”One of the questions we are trying to wrestle with is how do we make the Register and other [Freedom Co.] publications in the area . . . work together so that we are pushing the customer ? enticing is a better word ? from one to the one to the other.””
The question of the “”second-day”” lead versus the “”yesterday”” lead was also put to a number of interviewees.
Warren Phillips said, “”I think newspapers are already putting their leads on not just what happened yesterday, but on what it means, so they are going to go beyond television.
“”I think the more successful newspapers for a number of years now have not just been writing about what happened yesterday but about the currents in our society, the trends which may be an accumulation of a number of things which have real meaning for the reader and impact on the reader, but are not necessarily tied to a single event.””
Professor Hynds, author of American Newspapers in the 1970s and American Newspapers in the 1980s, added to the consensus by noting that newspapers need to do more to entice readers to the editorial pages. “”That is something that newspapers provide that television has given up on.””
Professor Rosen believes that the newspaper industry is undecided about whether to compete with television and glitzy media by offering more glitz and treating its readers as a tv audience or to take more substantive and thoughtful approaches.
“”This is the coming battle of journalism,”” he said, but victory will and should go to the latter.
Rem Reider of the American Journalism Review said there is a growing tendency of newspapers to take a magazine approach to delivering the news. “”The top newspapers are doing more of what readers traditionally used to turn to newsmagazines for, and there is quite a lot of shakeout in that part of the field too.””
Winter of the American Press Institute, which offers management seminars and is a forum for new ideas, is “”optimistic about what I see newspapers doing to meet the new media challenges . . . . We see a lot of good creative stuff going on, not everywhere, but in a lot of papers . . . .””
The really good newspapers today, he said, “”are providing both [more substance and innovations], and that is what is encouraging to me.”nE&P
?However, the transition is uneven and uncertain, and also carries with it warnings of possibly going too far in the areas of glitz, gloss and reader
accommodation in order to be competitive.
?(Ruffini is a free-lance writer and a former reporter for the New York Post.)
?Max King, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, said that, while the ’80s might have been considered “”The Age of Information,”” the ’90s might be called “”The Age of Complexity,”” and “”this plays well to the strengths of newspapers.””
?”We organize our newspaper very carefully to cater to the same time-management pressures that people have that make them maybe go to tv more often than newspapers.””
? ? Glenn Ritt, editor, The Record, Hackensack, N.J.
“”The watchdog function of newspapers was
recognized as important and something that newspapers can carry out better than does television news,”” May said.