Keeping the Faith  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   December 1994

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 knowledge.

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 car.

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 markets. "

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.

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