By: M.L. Stein Incoming New York Times managing editor Eugene Roberts says formula journalism, meager newsroom budgets and corporate lockstep will lead to the death of newspapers sp.
IF NEWSPAPERS DIE, the cause of death will be formula journalism, meager newsroom budgets and corporate lockstep ? not interactive computers, Eugene Roberts Jr. predicted at a West Coast symposium. The newly named managing editor of the New York Times brushed off "talk about the impending doom" of newspapers by critics who forsee electronic news delivery taking their place. Indeed, computerized news services actually are creating more demand for journalists and journalism as the PC subscribers depend on reporters and editors to tell them what is important and to add depth and perspective to the bulletins, said the former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. "No, if newspapers and journalism die, it is not likely to be death by computer. A more likely prognosis is suicide," Roberts told the recent Future of Journalism conference at San Francisco State University. "The big threat to journalism comes from within our profession, not from the outside," he warned. "We threaten our existence with mindless rushes toward the latest journalistic trend and fad. "We sabotage our newspapers by giving them a corporate look and feel, rather than letting them be as individualistic as the communities they serve. "We strangle our future by not paying enough attention to our past, where there is ample evidence of how shallow, mindless formula can loosen our hold on readers." Roberts, whose Inquirer won 17 Pulitzer Prizes, added that skimpy budgets are starving newsrooms and draining away their vitality. Moreover, he continued, outmoded rules are undermining the ability of newspapers to respond to the "infinite unpredictability of news." The biggest news stories in terms of reader interest almost always contain an element of unpredictability, Roberts said. Yet, "formula" newspapers bobble them, he added. "Why? To make a formula work day after day, a newspaper has to weed out the reporters and editors who are most adept at throwing away the book and coping with surprise in favor of staff members who are comfortable with rules and rote," he explained. Corporate conformists cannot cope with a major story, he went on, and the paper loses a critical opportunity to show it is dependable and readable at a time when readers most care. Roberts also lashed out at newspapers' growing reliance on weather maps, charts and graphs, news briefs and color to attract readers. If such features were simply improvements, papers would be richer for them, he said. But, he added, "In far too many cases, we introduced these devices while slashing newsroom budgets and newshole. The result all too often has been that instead of becoming additions to news coverage, they have been substitutes for news coverage." Roberts called it ironic that USA Today, whose format has been heavily copied by dailies, is currently printing more longer and in-depth stories in response to reader desires. "No one should be surprised," he said. "History and our own circulation figures in street sales tell us that people turn to newspapers for news, clarity and understanding when big events occur." Roberts said he hopes for a counter- movement in newspapers for substance and continuity. "You might get a large audience by being a quick, superficial read, but not an intense, dedicated audience," he asserted. "Journalistic history is littered with corpses of large-circulation newspapers that failed to make long-term and lasting reader relationships, and thus were viewed as dispensable by their readers . . . and advertisers." Besides San Francisco State, the symposium was sponsored by the Northern California and San Francisco State chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists, Media Alliance, and the Freedom Forum. ?( We sabotage our newspapers by giving them a corporate look and feel, rather than letting them be as individualistic as the communities they serve." ) [Caption] ?( - Eugene Roberts, incoming managing editor of the New York Times) [Photo ID]