By: M.L. STEIN
GENE ROBERTS HAS a simple explanation for declining readership and the diminished role of newspapers: It’s the news hole, stupid.
The New York Times managing editor warned that newspapers that cut back on news content and staffs are on a “suicidal” course of losing their hard-core readers and ultimately bringing on their own demise.
Speaking at the Riverside Press-Enterprise’s annual lectureship on the University of California campus, Roberts heaped most of the blame for reduced news coverage on corporate chain executives “far from the local scene.”
These chieftains, he said, rarely resort to ordering stories killed or slanted. Instead, Roberts observed, “It is the appointment of a pliable editor here, a corporate graphics conference there, that results in a more uniform look and cookie-cutter approach among a chain’s newspapers by the corporate research director’s interpretation of reader surveys that seek simple common denominator solutions to complex coverage problems.”
Often, he continued, the corporate view is hostile to government coverage, which the speaker termed essential to public understanding of the system.
“Governmental news may not be as gut-wrenching as rape, murder, airplane crashes and other mayhem, but many of our most serious readers take it seriously,” Roberts contended. “It is . . . virtually the only way they have to keep up with what is going on in government . . . . Supplying this part of the news fills a basic need of democracy.”
Roberts, a former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, which won l7 Pulitzer Prizes during his stewardship, urged newspapers to pay more attention to their “most serious and avid readers” if they want to survive.
Most newspapers ? the Times excepted ? worry most about their “marginal” readers rather than their serious ones, he said.
“They run photographs and graphics simply because they are colorful, not because they are newsy or have human interest values,” Roberts complained. “They opt for froth over information. This is nutty.”
Many newspapers, he charged, are being run “like chain shoe stores” with no sense of being important community institutions with critical responsibilities to the public.
One solution, he offered, would be to make newspapers the subject of public debate, holding them accountable for covering the communities they serve.
Roberts downplayed the significance of surveys showing that only 14% to 17% of readers follow jumps on substantive stories.
People who turn pages for jumps want more detail and are considered a newspaper’s hard-core readers ? “the most important insurance it has,” he said.
“Each time we restrict these readers’ options by cutting back on staff and news hole, we cut back on our insurance,” he added.
Corporate executives, Roberts said, fail to grasp this idea because they tie the pay and promotion of their newspaper managers to annual profits, rewarding them for good years and penalizing them for bad ones.
“Is it any wonder that newspaper managers make short-term decisions to the long-term detriment of newspapers?” Roberts asked.
For some time, he noted, newspaper groups have had two choices: to accept the fact that profit levels will vary with the economy and newsprint prices, or to offset economic pressures by squeezing newsroom staffs, budgets and the news hole.
“Too many papers, alas, are choosing the latter course and, thus, imperiling their futures,” he lamented.
Roberts also suggested that companies investing heavily in electronic information systems are, ironically, cutting back on the news staffs needed to furnish their content.
He took a further swipe at public journalism as being part of the news shortage problem.
“Not all of it is bad, but much of it has more to do with public relations than with journalism,” Roberts stated.
“I believe in public journalism, too . . . but my definition involves covering public meetings, not sponsoring them. It involves digging into the major issues of the community thoroughly and telling readers in detail about them . . . . This kind of public journalism requires ample news hole and staff, of course.”
Turning again to his plea for more reporting on government, Roberts maintained that shortchanging such coverage has led to newspapers becoming less essential. Today, he said, the need for covering state legislatures and local government has never been greater as more authority over welfare and Medicaid will shift to the states.
Even Washington reporting is slipping, with few newspapers providing detailed coverage of Congress, he said.
“The trends for most newspapers are dismayingly clear,” Roberts said.
“They are turning their backs on news and comprehensive coverage ? the very things that made them community institutions and valuable properties in the first place.”
The situation, he went on, has reached the point where the morale of editors and news staffers is dropping as newspapers, with a few exceptions, concentrate on increasing profits to please shareholders.
“Almost never is there talk of the financial commitment necessary to live up to our responsibilities to our communities and our nation,” Roberts said. “To talk of increasing coverage or news hole or staff on most newspapers would now be tantamount to lunacy. Such a tragedy, because sound, readable, dependable news coverage is our future.”
In the question period that followed his talk, Roberts conceded that some papers owned by the New York Times Co. have suffered cutbacks, but said he plays no part in corporate decisions.
?(“It is the appointment of a pliable editor here, a
corporate graphics conference there, that results
in a more uniform look and cookie-cutter approach among a chain’s newspapers by the corporate research director’s interpretation of reader surveys that seek simple common denominator solutions to complex coverage problems.”) [Caption]
?( ? Eugene Roberts, managing editor, New York Times) [Photo & Caption]