THERE'S NOTHING WRONG with newspapers that a greater identification with readers' needs and concerns couldn't cure, two editors told their peers.
And it also wouldn't hurt to elevate reporters' pay scales and recruit writers with solid knowledge of such issues as tax policies, health care, child care and social security, it was added.
Gregory Favre, executive editor of the Sacramento Bee, and Geneva Overholser, who left recently as editor of the Des Moines Register and will become ombudsman at the Washington Post this month, spoke at a joint meeting of the California Society of Newspaper Editors and the Associated Press News Executives Council (APNEC) in Oakland. The conference theme was "Changing Media in a Changing World."
"If some of us are declining, it's because we aren't paying enough attention to content . . . and because we aren't holding on tightly and dearly to the values on which we have built decades and decades of support in our communities," said Favre.
The speaker, who is immediate past president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said his travels around the country for ASNE convinced him there is an "undercurrent of discontent with us out there. There is a feeling among readers that we have lost our values, or at least set them aside ? that we are not delivering what we preach."
Favre suggested that more internal attention be paid to the newspapers' watchdog role, the separation of news and advertising, and audience segmentation.
He added that an ASNE study confirms his belief that editors should think in terms of giving readers feedback on what papers hear and learn.
"I believe that people want the filtering and editorial judgment that newspapers bring to an otherwise overwhelming flood of information," Favre elaborated. "They want us to help them sort out this ever-increasingly complicated world . . . to guide them through events, to create a sense of coherence, to be the credible source of news and information in their communities."
In a society that is disintegrating and afflicted with growing cynicism, conflict and aggression, people should look to newspapers as an old friend, a familiar voice that they trust, he stressed.
But this will not be accomplished by luring readers with "supermarket tabloid tricks" that "try to make our newspapers dumb or dumber than our electronic competitors," Favre warned. "Without being trivial, newspapers can cover significant subjects and still offer entertainment," he argued.
"The newspapers that are succeeding are those that have accepted change, are providing news and information that has meaning for all elements of their communities, and are pumping new life into our traditional principles and values," he continued.
Overholser, who has said that her resignation from the Des Moines paper last February was at least partly induced by Gannett's alleged financial pressure on the paper that reduced the news hole and editorial reach, averred she was still bullish on the future of newspapers. But she lamented their "decline in public confidence . . . .
"We have lots of reasons to be optimistic," she said. "We're in the catbird seat in the information revolution; we have the editing skills and a proven record of serving democracy as the premier provider of information."
Then why the malaise and sense of unease in the industry?
"I believe a major contributing factor is that we have lost our way," she posited. "We are no longer guided by our guiding principles, so readers no longer see us as a driving force in providing information."
Overholser contended that newspapers and readers once were closer together ? "equal partners" ? but this relationship has changed as advertisers demanded bigger profits and papers began putting more emphasis on advertising over news.
"We are no longer driven primarily by readers' interests," she said. "We always have been a business, but there was something grander at the heart of it. We were able to make our newspapers something special . . . . Readers knew it and, indeed, advertisers knew it. It was this commitment to something better than mere commercial success that made us successful."
As such, Overholser said, newspapers were able to draw highly talented journalists to their newsrooms and justified their special place in society as a protector against government intrusion.
Overholser suggested that the best and the brightest are leaving newspapers or not seeking them out in career planning. She urged higher pay for reporters and editors, and making newspapers more exciting places to work.
Overholser also rapped newspapers for not being more "future-oriented" and for having a "fear of change."
"Embrace change," Overholser pleaded. "Allow room for different views." She termed broader coverage of minorities, for example, "one of our most essential commitments."
Still, Overholser's view of the industry tended toward the gloomy. She acknowledged that not all family newspapers are of high quality, but she blamed some of the industry's problems on the pressure of shareholders to put profits above all.
"How can we be led by the pull of inspiring values when they have been pushed from the heart of what we do?" she asked. "Our spirits are impoverished by the environment of our newsrooms today. Our people feel it. Our newspapers show it, and our readers know it."
Overholser called for a return to editorial principles that made newspapers outstanding information sources.
"Let us challenge the pressures that threaten these notions and include the public in the debate," she declared. "I believe that our newspapers' future and? to no small degree ? our democracy's future depends on it."
?(I believe a major contributing factor is that we have lost our way. We are no longer guided by our guiding principles, so readers no longer see us as a driving force in providing information) [Photo & Caption]
?( Geneva Overholser, Washington Post ombudsman) [Catpion]
By: M.L. Stein Favre, Overholser address the industry's problems sp.