By: Tony Case
Incoming American Society of Newspaper Editors president
fears newspapers are concentrating too much
on form and not enough on substance sp.
THE INCOMING PRESIDENT of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) has picked a movie title as the theme of his tenure, one he feels describes his philosophy about promoting the strengths and ideals of print journalism into the next century ? Back to the Future.
In an interview prior to assuming direction of ASNE, Quincy (Mass.) Patriot Ledger editor William B. Ketter voiced concern that newspapers are concentrating too much on the various new forms of relaying the news, and not enough on the substance of what’s being reported.
Ketter urged his fellow editors to go back in time and take a fresh look at the age-old basics of journalism, while they busy themselves experimenting with and investing in new media.
“We must pay attention to what we’re about,” he said. “Our purpose is to be purveyors of information critical to the existence of our communities, and to connect our communities to progress.”
These days, when data can be retrieved in the blink of an eye, newspapers may represent the past, but Ketter thinks they’ll have a firm place in years to come ? if those who are running them don’t blow it.
“Newspapers have taken a bad rap. People say they’re dinosaurs, they’re ponderous, they’re not quick enough or flashy enough. But my feeling is that newspapers are an important part of the democratic process,” he stated.
“They allow people to make critical decisions relating to their communities and themselves, and that’s something editors need to give more thought to. If we lose track of that purpose, if our compass gets off course, then I think we’ll find the newspaper might well become an endangered species.”
During its convention in Dallas next week, ASNE will unveil plans for the Journalism Values Institute, which will strive, Ketter says, “to improve the quality of our journalism.”
The institute, operated through ASNE’s ethics and values committee, shouldn’t be compared to a news council that monitors news organizations and passes judgment on their reportage, the new president stressed.
“To me, each news operation must determine its own values and set its own code of ethics,” he said. “I’m not in favor of any organization, whether a news council or journalism association, setting up punitive measures against journalists or newspapers, based on some set of standards. I feel that’s contrary to the principle of a free press.”
Rather, participants in the institute “will reflect on how to relate to the changing world,” Ketter explained, “and how we can practice our craft in a way that it is better understood by the public.”
The editor pooh-poohs the charge that the mainstream press has become tabloid of late ? observing that it’s the nature of much of the news, not of news reporting, that drives this perception.
“This is a human business, with human hearts and human decisions, and the result is that occasionally people are going to go a little too far,” he said. “But the accusation that the media have gone beyond the pale is wrong.”
While he may be a purist ? emphasizing journalistic principles and practices over new gadgetry ? Ketter doesn’t appear ready to dust off the manual typewriters and bring back the Linotype machine.
The Patriot Ledger, on the contrary, has embraced technology, equipping reporters with laptop computers so that they can report the news as it happens.
And Ketter anticipates a day in the not-too-distant future when filing a story from the field and phoning or faxing an editor from the most distant locality will be second nature, rather than a high-tech aberration.
The editor predicts that newspapers’ fascination with electronic news transmission ? including online, audiotex, fax, CD-ROM, cable and broadcast ? will only intensify over time.
“The journalist of tomorrow,” he offered, “will be a multimedia reporter,” working not only for the paper but for all its information enterprises.
Meantime, ASNE is continuing its longtime efforts to attract new newspaper readers, retain current ones, and get back those who have drifted away, Ketter reported.
He expressed particular interest in the association’s stated mission to make America’s newspapers, and especially its newsrooms, truly reflective of their diverse communities by the year 2000.
Ketter admitted the editors are behind in this goal. While it’s going to be a difficult task to carry out, he said, “we’re not going to back off one iota from our target objective.”
He maintained that “diversification is good business for newspapers, because the face of America is changing. Diversity puts you in a better position to deal with that change ? ignore it at your peril.”
Ketter pointed out that the Patriot Ledger’s staffing and news coverage have changed in recent years to reflect Quincy’s growing Asian population.
The new ASNE leader laments that his group is wrongly viewed as an association for editors from larger newspapers, and he hopes his election will dispel this myth. He plans to work with the group’s small newspaper committee in reaching out to editors at the less prominent papers.
“I know how important small daily newspapers are to this country and to this business,” said Ketter, who began his career at a weekly and worked at a small daily and two wire services before joining the 90,000-circulation Patriot Ledger. “I want to make sure their voice is heard, and that they are a vital part of ASNE,” he added.
Another priority of Ketter’s is promoting the efforts of ASNE’s freedom of information committee, which has been active on a number of legislative issues. It currently is trying to ensure that the federal Freedom of Information Act provides access to electronic records as well as records printed on paper.
“Freedom of information is, to me, what ASNE is all about,” Ketter asserted. He proposed that a coalition of the national and state organizations fighting the FoI battles be formed.
Ketter noted that, this year, ASNE launches its Institute for Journalism Excellence, which places journalism educators in newspaper posts during the summer months. Twenty-three teachers will participate in the program, which is funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation in Miami.
ASNE’s literacy committee plans in coming months to examine computer-savvy students’ views on newspapers and compare their opinions with those of less computer-literate kids.
And the association is looking to start a campus-journalism mentoring program, whereby ASNE members will monitor school newspapers’ press freedom cases and guide young newspeople.
“We want to be vigilant in protecting their rights to freedom of expression,” Ketter said of the budding journalists. “With all this politically correct stuff going on on campuses ? college and high school ? we’re concerned about the campus press and its right to expression.”
?( Newspapers have taken a bad rap. People say they’re not quick enough or flashy enough. But my feeling is that newspapers are an important part of the democratic process.”) [Caption]
?( William B. Ketter, incoming ASNE president and editor of the Quincy (Mass.) Patriot Ledger.) [Photo & Caption]