Keeping the Faith
Adapted from the seventeenth annual Frank E. Gannett lecture, delivered by Los Angeles Times Editor Shelby Coffey III at the Freedom Forum in Arlington, Virginia, on November 2:
By Shelby Coffey
Quality newspapers, and by extension quality magazines,
are well-equipped to succeed in the shifting media world. They'll succeed
because of their attention to basic reader psychology and because they
understand the key transformation of turning information into readily graspable
We've all heard visions of dynamic convergence,
a flat panel operated by touch, with a virtually unlimited supply of information,
interactive ads and subject matter chosen just for you by what computer
people call an agent. When you finish flipping through the crystal-clear
images, another monitor will spit out an audio tape of all the custom-chosen
stories you haven't had time to read so you can listen to them in your
That vision is a little unsettling to us ink-stained
wretches. But it needn't be if we consider one important point: If newspapers
were reduced to their news-and advertising-gathering functions, their expenses
would be reduced by 80 percent. The current costs of production and circulation
could be substantially less in the new electronic world.
Further, as George Gilder, author of "Microcosm,"
wrote last year in Forbes ASAP: "The ultimate reason that the newspapers
will prevail in the Information Age is that they are better than anyone
else at collecting, editing, filtering and presenting real information.
[They] are pursuing the fastest expanding current markets rather than rear-view
People in the news business are in a battle for
attention. And attention loves to range and graze until hooked. The trick,
as Henry Luce once put it, is to get the information off the page and into
the readers mind.
Let me cite George Gilder again: "Newspapers differ
from television stations in much the way automobiles differ from trains.
With the train (and the TV), you go to the station at the scheduled time
and travel to the destinations determined from above. With the car (and
the newspaper), you get in and go pretty much where you want when you want.
Newspaper readers are not couch potatoes; they interact with the product,
shaping it to their own ends."
This premise is based on the decreasing price
and increasing power of computers. It's worth remembering that only when
color television got really cheap did it become ubiquitous and it's easier
to use than a PC.
For newspapers, look at the driving demographics.
Children in school still learn reading on pages. The paper itself is handy,
divisible, portable, cheap and accidentally leaving it on the bus won't
throw you into a tizzy the way leaving behind your hand-held Newton would.
At this point, quality newspapers are well-positioned
for the future on paper and screens if they're true to their values. Where
the future of news is concerned, technology is temporary, content is king.
The last time I was on "Nightline," I was smacked
across the face with the charge of being part of a dinosaur. It's worth
noting that dinosaurs were around for many centuries. And as Jurassic Park
shows, it turns out dinosaurs are still quite popular.###