By: George Garneau Journalism professor warns newspapers that a lack of local news coverage is the real reason for declining readership sp.
AT A RECENT conference on the future of print journalism, the most biting criticism of newspapers and the most overt reference to their demise came from unexpected quarters: a journalism professor and a newspaper company executive. Steven Ross, associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, lambasted newspapers for throwing out the baby with the bath water ? cutting back on local news coverage to beef up profits. Speaking at Computer Sciences Corp.'s conference in Cambridge, Mass., on the need for newspapers to provide local news coverage to survive in a future of digital communications, Ross said newspapers that scrimp on local news scuttle their future by opening the door to competitors. As an example, he cited a daily in northern New Jersey, where he lives, that halted coverage of about 100 communities. The retreat gave a green light to hordes of weeklies ? from real community newspapers to shoppers ? to start up or expand. "It is happening all over the country," Ross said. "Eight of the 10 largest newspapers have declining circulation. The fact is, they have fewer local reporters and editors." While publishers are quick to blame illiteracy for declining circulation trends, Ross said, "it seems to have escaped them . . . . If it's a cheap product, the public figures it out." He added, "Unless responsible operators decide editorial is king, irresponsible operators will eat away at their markets." In the future, it won't be good enough for local papers to offer a smattering of local news and fill the bulk of the paper with wire service copy, said Ross, a former magazine and newsletter editor who has written several books, including one on computer-assisted reporting. "The public really does figure it out," he said. "They will get AP on Compuserve." Roger Fidler, director of Knight-Ridder's Information Design Laboratory in Boulder, Colo., seconded Ross. Fidler predicted that the same short-term, bottom-line management Ross described would lead to the demise of unspecified public newspaper companies in 10 to 20 years. Fidler, who is developing portable, flat-panel computer screens to display news, went a step further than any other academic, consultant, computer industry thinker or editor at the conference in forecasting the end of newspapers on newsprint. "I fully believe that in 20 to 25 years, they will come to the conclusion that there is no point in running printing presses," Fidler said of newspaper publishers. He backed that radical concept with simple arithmetic: Printing and distribution gobble up 50% to 60% of a newspaper's expenses.
While publishers are quick to blame illiteracy for declining circulation trends, Ross said, "it seems to have escaped them . . . . If it's a cheap product, the public figures it out."