By: ROBERT NEUWIRTH
NEARLY HALF of America’s editors and publishers think press coverage is shallow and inadequate, according to a poll sponsored by Editor & Publisher and conducted by Technometrica Institute of Policy and Politics (TIPP).
In addition, the survey shows that more than 55% of the country’s newspaper executives believe the press is too cynical, two-thirds think newspapers concentrate more on personalities than policy, and more than 75% say print and broadcast news organizations go beyond reporting the news and actually fuel political controversies.
Further, more than 18% of those contacted in the poll ? almost one in five ? said press coverage “”is often inaccurate.””
Executives from newspapers large and small were surprised by the extent of the skepticism.
“”We certainly are an introspective and thoughtful lot,”” said Tim McGuire, editor of the 350,000-circulation Minneapolis Star Tribune.
“”Boy, we think highly of ourselves, don’t we?”” added Tony Daranyi, publisher of the 4,000-circulation Telluride (Colo.) Daily Planet.
Despite the self-criticism, however, the nation’s newspaper chiefs roundly rejected the idea, widely endorsed in the wake of Princess Diana’s death, that the press traffics in scandal and yellow journalism. By a solid 2-to-1 margin, U.S. editors and publishers pleaded not guilty to the charge of sensationalism.
A strong majority ? 64.4% ? of America’s editors and publishers believe the public still has a reasonable amount of trust and confidence in newspapers. And 60% of those same newspaper business and news executives believe newspapers today offer a higher level of editorial quality than they did five years ago.
Participants in the poll had a variety of responses to results showing they are dubious about the quality of the news they report.
“”I tend to agree with the shallow comment,”” said Dennis Sodomka, executive editor of the 90,500-circulation Augusta Chronicle in Georgia. “”In a lot of ways, we seem to have lost our way in journalism.””
Sodomka says the challenge now facing journalists is to be interpretive without sacrificing objectivity. “”People like what we’re doing,”” he said, “”but they want more perspective. We need to do more than say: ‘Here are the facts. Now you figure out what they mean.’ “”
J. Stewart Bryan III, chairman and CEO of Media General Inc. and publisher of its flagship, the 208,000-circulation Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia, offered a different assessment. He said that serious news is being sacrificed at the altar of profits ? as newspapers cut news holes and promote softer stories.
“”A lot of the smaller newspapers are failing to produce the kinds of news reports their readers deserve,”” said Bryan, whose company is made up predominantly of small-town papers. “”We’ve got to keep the quality of the local news reporting ? that’s our franchise. I don’t think we can put the bottom line ahead of our commitment to quality.””
Bill Cornwell, editor and publisher of the 16,700-circulation Brazosport Facts in Texas, said news executives who answered the poll were simply being honest, admitting that every story involves choices about which details to print and which to leave out. He says one solution is to recruit better reporters. “”We have got to bring the salaries of our entry-level reporters up,”” he said. “”We have to attract smarter, brighter people.””
McGuire, from Minneapolis, took a different tack, saying newspapers by and large do a good job. “”We are in a very fragmented world ? far more fragmented than when I started out 20 or 30 years ago ? and political controversy can result from what we do. But I think our work is more balanced, more meaningful, and more thoughtful than ever before. I think what you’re hearing is editors who wish we could do it better every day.””
For his part, Tim O’Donnell, publisher of the 8,000-circulation Olathe Daily News in Kansas, believes that it’s healthy for newspapers to be uncomfortable about what they print. “”I’m encouraged by that,”” he said. “”I would rather hear that than people say we’re right on the money.””
O’Donnell suggested, however, that there may be a serious issue lurking behind the doubts. While editors and publishers want to provide in-depth coverage, that may not be what the public wants. Readers, he fears, may want more capsulized, bite-sized stories ? in short, shallow and inadequate coverage. “”Maybe USA Today had it right all along,”” he said.
However, for Ellen Soeteber, managing editor of Tribune Co.’s 250,000-circulation Sun-Sentinel, in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the
poll provoked a different thought. She said that the challenge editors face is how to create compelling presentations that make people want to read more detailed stories. “”We tend to favor dullness,”” she said. “”We need to tell more stories that engage people. I don’t think good storytelling means trivializing the news.””
Of the publishers and editors who complained of inaccuracy, she said: “”We are what we say we are ? honest. All newspapers make too many mistakes. We need to be conscious of these failings and address them within our own newsrooms.””
Daranyi, the small-town Colorado publisher, said much of his skepticism about the accuracy and depth of news coverage relates to stories about President Bill Clinton. “”I see it from the liberal media as well as the right wing,”” he said. “”Everyone is out to get this guy on issues where the American public has said, ‘We don’t care anymore.’ “”
Daranyi criticizes national newspapers and TV reporters for running too many stories based on anonymous sources. “”It’s rare to read national stories that have attribution,”” he charged. “”We’re a small newspaper, but we don’t ever publish something that doesn’t have attribution. The American political scene should be covered as a local news item.””
The poll, conducted in mid-December by the Technometrica Institute of Policy and Politics of Emerson, N.J., has a margin of error of 7%. The survey polled 359 editors and 176 publishers who have agreed to participate on a continuing basis. Plans call for quarterly updates as a barometer of the newspaper industry and of what its leaders think about national issues.
The latest poll also revealed:
u Execs believe newspapers are in much better shape now than they were five years ago. More than three-quarters of those polled said their newspapers are better off financially than in 1992, and a solid 60% believe all newspapers are doing well.
u Most editors and publishers are far more positive about their own papers than about the industry as a whole. For instance, 50.6% of the newsroom leaders polled rate their reporting as better now than it was five years ago. But the numbers fall precipitously when they evaluate newspapers as a whole: Only 13.7% of editors and publishers think the industry’s reporting is better now.
u Job cuts at the nation’s dailies have slowed dramatically. Only 16.1% of those polled said their papers had laid off workers during 1997. And only one in four newsroom leaders said they had cut budgets in the last year. This contrasts sharply with the 1996 poll, in which almost two-thirds of editors reported reduced budgets and one-third reported fewer journalists.
u For readers, newspaper prices have stabilized. More than 80% of newsroom leaders said their papers had not raised single-copy prices last year, and two-thirds reported stable subscription rates. Again, this is a shift from 1996, when more than half of editors reported higher subscription prices, and 35% reported higher cover prices.
u The number of newspapers now active online has almost doubled in the past year. Almost 90% of the execs contacted in December said their papers operate a Web site. In a similar poll in 1996, only 48% of newsroom leaders reported online editions. Despite the strong tilt toward the Internet, only 17% of newsroom execs said their Web sites are profitable. Still, unlike the rest of corporate America, which seems to have cooled on Web spending, more than two-thirds of the newspaper leaders said they planned to increase spending on Internet operations this year.
“”They had to drag me kicking and screaming into the Internet,”” said Texas publisher Cornwell. “”But to stay a step ahead of the competition we had to do it.”” Through judicious policies ? like holding back the Internet edition until after the print paper hits the streets and only posting selected articles online ? Cornwell says his Web site is turning a slim profit ? thanks to classified.
u Publishers are once again bullish on the newspaper industry: 50% say they believe the outlook will improve over the next five years. Editors, however, remain doubtful: 31.7% see brighter times ahead, 21% expect things will get worse, and 40.1% think things will stay the same.
Interestingly, staffers from newspapers under 100,000 circulation are more bullish about the industry’s prospects than their big-city brethren. When asked about the outlook for newspapers over the next five years, 56% of small-paper publishers said it would be bright, compared with only 35% of big-paper publishers. And 38% of small-town editors thought the future would be positive for newspapers, compared with only 28% of their more cosmopolitan colleagues.
Further, more than 40% of small-paper publishers and editors suggested their editorial influence is higher than it was five years ago, compared with only 31% of large-paper professionals.
“”The grass-roots newspapers are more in touch with their communities,”” explained Brazosport Facts editor and publisher Cornwell. “”I think the major metros are grasping for some kind of role. We concentrate on what we call refrigerator journalism ? the kind of news that moms and pops will clip out of the paper and put on their refrigerators.””
Staffers at big-city papers also tend to be a bit more cynical about the quality of the news in their columns. Only 14% of small-town editors and publishers said news coverage is often inaccurate, compared with 21% of metro editors, and 27% of metro publishers, who endorsed that view.
“”I’m tempted to say that big-paper editors know more and are more cynical,”” explained Olathe, Kan., publisher O’Donnell. “”Maybe there’s a little more idealism at small papers.”n
?(“”We tend to favor dullness. We need to tell more stories that engage people.””) [Caption]
?( ? Ellen Soeteber, managing editor, Sun-Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.) [Photo & Caption]
?(“”A lot of the smaller newspapers are failing to
produce the kinds of news reports their readers
deserve . . . . I don’t think we can put the bottom line ahead of our commitment to quality.””) [Caption]
?(? J. Stewart Bryan III, chairman/CEO, Media General Inc.,
Richmond, Va.) [Photo & Caption]
?(Other Key Results
How will “”traditional newspapers”” (ink on paper) fare, 1998-2002?
4.7% Not sure/no answer
Editorial influence on readers, 1997 vs. 1992
9.4% Not sure/no answer
Public trust in newspapers, 1997
1.5% Not sure/no answer
How often do journalists’ opinions influence coverage?
1.9% Not sure/no answer
How editors & publishers think
the public perceives newspapers
5.5% Not sure/no answer
How editors perceive newspapers
4.2% Not sure/no answer
How publishers perceive newspapers
5.7% Not sure/no answer
About This Poll
The E&P/TIPP Newspaper Poll, conducted in mid-December by the Technometrica Institute of Policy and Politics of Emerson, N.J., has a margin of error of 7%. A total of 359 U.S. newspaper editors and 176 publishers have agreed to participate in the poll on a continuing basis; 88 publishers and 167 editors responded to the December survey. Plans call for quarterly updates as a barometer of the newspaper industry and of what its leaders think about national issues.) [Photo & Caption]