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American Journalism Review
<i>State of The American Newspaper</i><br>Then and Now  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   September 1999

State of The American Newspaper
Then and Now   

Softer news, fewer quirks and twice the space: A major new survey reveals how papers have changed--for better and worse.

By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp ( began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.

After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.

In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.


In Thursday, January 9, 1964, readers of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch awoke to a five-degree day. Their paper cost seven cents. Its front page featured 14 stories and three photos. Four bumping heads tombstoned their way across the top. A four-column lead reported that President Johnson, trying to budge a nation still numbed by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, was pushing his legislative agenda on Congress.

The paper was a happy mishmash of serious news and oddities. From the three local, nine national and two world stories on page one, readers learned about a proposed merger involving seven local towns, infighting among county Democrats, a reform plan that South Vietnam's premier hoped would help win a war there--and a 16-year-old girl caught running a moonshine still.

At the bottom of the page they discovered that the local YWCA was launching an anti-girdle campaign. "A girdle is a girl's worst enemy," the unbylined, 6-inch story began, accompanied by art of local women throwing away the offending undergarments.

That issue of the Post-Dispatch was crammed with no fewer than 137 local items--about news, sports, business and society matters. On page three, an excruciating local photograph showed five sad-faced children left motherless after a shooting in which their father was charged. A four-page editor- ial section included three long analytical articles, but otherwise few stories throughout the paper exceeded six column inches. Only two A-section stories topped 20 inches.

Thirty-five years later, on Thursday, January 14, 1999, St. Louis arose to another brisk day (24 degrees) but a different-looking newspaper. The Post-Dispatch now cost 50 cents. Its modular front page, with no bumping heads, carried four stories (three local, one national, all jumping) and five photos, the most prominent a four-column color shot of an ice storm that had paralyzed the region the day before. A digest-index ran four inches deep across the bottom.

A banner headline previewed the noon opening of President Clinton's impeachment trial. The front page also covered the ice storm (story, two photos, fact box), a local nurses' unionization vote, and local nuns' efforts to prepare by hand 130,000 communion hosts for the impending visit of Pope John Paul II.

Overall, the broadsheet paper featured fewer but longer stories (69 local items, about half the 1964 total), far fewer oddities and far more graphics and reader-service material. There were fewer national and international pieces and local personal items. A 36-page entertainment tab, unmatched by anything in the 1964 edition, contained five local bylines plus hundreds of listings, from "jaunty jalopies" at an area auto show to local casino gambling events.

Times had changed, and so had the Post-Dispatch, one of 10 papers reviewed in an extensive State of the American Newspaper survey of how newspaper content has evolved over a generation.

The survey sought to answer a simple question: Amid all the turbulence in society and in newsrooms, with all the talk of the need to innovate, has the newspaper itself, the bundle that ends up in the reader's hands every day, really changed all that much?

The short answer is yes. But if many of the changes are self-evident, some are surprising and others even alarming.

Today's newspapers are strikingly different, in looks, content and tone, from their 1960s counterparts. Whether you call it the paper (1960s) or the product (1990s), whether you find it on the doorstep ('60s) or somewhere in the yard ('90s), the actual fruit of all the journalistic tumult and sweat has indeed been transformed.

Today's papers have bigger newsholes, longer stories, lengthier leads and more jumps than those of a generation ago. They pay dramatically more attention to business and sports. They give more front-page coverage to local stories and less to world news. They are more diverse (but not as much as you might think), use anonymous sources less often (but barely) and still like their pun headlines on occasion. They also publish enough calendars in a day to choke a Palm Pilot.

The most visible change is in appearance. Older papers look homely and drab compared to their artful, color-splashed modern cousins. With content, the most noticeable difference also starts with something visible: Older papers were jam-packed with short items, overflowing with local names, places and activities. In tone, today's papers are far better written. Writing in older papers carried a traditional, just-the-facts style, even as the pages brimmed with more peculiarities and sensationalistic crime stories than we may remember.

In most ways, today's papers are more featurized than the older ones, and features have changed. Gone for the most part are "women's" pages, social and personal items, and full-page daily photo spreads. Supplanting them are themed sections (on fitness, gardening, relationships) and what former editor James Squires has called "marketing-driven editorial content"--ad-rich sections on real estate, automobiles, travel, dining out and the like. Some serious topics, notably religion, have gained attention, as have all sorts of lifestyle subjects (like the Fresno Bee's "Petishes," a page of "advice for and about your pets").

Papers have also experienced an agate revolution. They publish exponentially more business, sports and TV agate, along with lists of everything from participatory sports to local support groups.

Today's papers offer more interaction, more reader-service content, growing attention to high tech and money management, and a clear effort to appeal to younger readers through such vehicles as teen pages and entertainment sections. Still, considerable hard news remains, and, to my eye at least, it appears that government coverage--the subject of so much dismissive criticism among many editors--remains high at the federal and local levels but lower at the state and regional levels.

The bottom line is that modern newspapers read different. They are, by almost any measure, far superior to their 1960s counterparts: better written, better looking, better organized, more responsible, less sensational, less sexist and racist, and more informative and public-spirited than they are often given credit for.

Yet something significant, perhaps vital, seems to be in decline. When you carefully read scores of papers from both eras, as I did, it is hard not to conclude that modern papers are less flavorful, less surprising, and--distressingly--less imbued with a distinctive sense of place.

If yesteryear's papers strutted with the happy-go-lucky vanity of impregnable monopolies, today's hum with professionalism but lack some of their predecessors' wayward charm and unabashed embrace of community.

There was much to criticize and reform in the '60s newspaper world. But revisiting it now brings a wallop of nostalgia. For all their faults, those newspapers exuded a guileless and infectious charm, a goofy amiability that can make today's technically superior editions seem stiff and remote.

If nothing else, newspapers have mirrored their world in one profound way over the past 35 years: Like society at large, they have gained sophistication and glitz but at a conspicuous cost to their innocence and gusto.

For this study, we sought mainstream papers, deliberately avoiding the very best, worst, largest and smallest. We kept in mind diversity of ownership and locale. We chose papers known for influencing their states or regions, mid-range papers in both circulation and status. Our aim was not so much to achieve a statistically pure sample of all American papers as to get a reasonable look at evolving heartland journalism. Thus, our 10: the Fresno Bee, Houston Chronicle, Las Vegas Review-Journal, Macon Telegraph, Richmond Times-Dispatch, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Topeka Capital-Journal, Wilmington News Journal, Cleveland's Plain Dealer and Memphis' Commercial Appeal.

Using a 99-question form, we analyzed the papers for one week each in May 1963, September 1963 and January 1964. Then we did the same for the comparable weeks in 1998 and 1999.

This analysis constitutes one of the most comprehensive examinations ever into newspaper content. Even so, the data should be read not as absolutes but as indicators of trends. Our papers represent an important slice of newspapering, but not all newspapers: Eight of these 10 rank in the top 100 in circulation, and all 10 rank in the top 16 percent. (Put another way, the smallest of our picks, the 60,000-circulation Topeka Capital-Journal, is still larger than 1,300 of the nation's dailies, most of which are small-town enterprises.) This report also includes personal impressions from an informed reading of many of the survey papers. Taken together, the observations and data are meant to provide some baseline evidence to enlarge our understanding--and challenge some myths--about how newspapers are changing.

Some of our chief findings:

Today's newshole is double that of 1963-64. Among these 10 papers, total newshole rose an average of 101 percent, from 59 percent at Cleveland's Plain Dealer to 161 percent at the Macon Telegraph.

While total news space clearly has risen, three factors somewhat offset the gains. First, eight of these 10 cities have lost at least one daily newspaper since the 1960s, reducing the overall newshole within the market. Second, in the intervening years the papers have shrunk their page size by an average of 10 percent (the tables on page 72 reflect the specific shrinkage at each paper). Third, most have increased the size of their body type. Even so, the rise in newshole looks significant at every paper we studied.

Hard news now gets relatively lower priority for space. Bear in mind that a doubled newshole means that today's papers print more of almost every kind of news. But as a percentage of total newshole, business coverage has doubled (7 percent to 15 percent), and sports (16 percent to 21 percent) and features (23 percent to 26 percent) have risen notably. Hard news categories have fallen: local from 19 percent to 14 percent, national from 11 percent to 7 percent, and foreign from 5 percent to 3 percent. One telltale indicator of today's priorities: business agate has jumped from an average of four columns a day to 15.

Front pages are much more local. Local stories, as a proportion of page one copy, are up from 41 percent to 55 percent; foreign stories are down sharply, from 20 percent to 5 percent. National news stayed about the same (39 percent to 41 percent). Among the topics getting more front-page coverage: business, court, science and sports news. (Scandal news also soared, but the study was doubtless skewed on this point since the final week of our sample coincided with the Clinton impeachment trial.) Among the topics getting reduced front-page play: world and celebrity news. Interestingly, front-page attention to two key topics stayed almost constant: crime and government/politics.

Front pages are more featurized. Today's front pages average fewer stories (12 in 1963-64 to five now), more features (up from 10 percent to 20 percent), more soft leads (up from 9 percent to 29 percent), more jumps (up from 37 percent to 88 percent) and more length (up from an average of nine inches to 20). They have 25 percent more art and, of course, color. Modern pages have fewer bumping headlines, banner headlines or leads in the traditional top-right position. Pun headlines rose a tad; the average 1998-99 paper ran three in the 20 front pages we studied, compared to two in 1963-64.

Diversity has increased. Bylines that were apparently female quadrupled, from 7 percent to 29 percent. In photographs, the papers averaged 38 male faces and 12 females (our count reflects page one images for all three weeks) over the 1960s period, 44 male and 16 female in the 1990s. They averaged 40 white faces and five nonwhite faces in the 1960s period, 42 white and 16 nonwhite in 1998-99.

Stories are longer. In their main news sections, the older papers averaged 36 items a day under six inches, compared to 13 for the modern papers. Older papers averaged just one item a day over 20 inches inside the A section, compared to three today. Letters to the editor jumped from three a day to seven. In a snapshot look at sources (we recorded the first source mentioned in front-page stories), we found that anonymous sources were down (18 percent to 14 percent), "regular people" sources up (10 percent to 15 percent), and government sources about the same (39 percent to 38 percent).

Behind the figures are a host of personality changes. If newspapers were relatives, and sometimes they do seem part of the family, then the 1963-64 papers seem like dotty Aunt Zelda and Uncle Ernie--unkempt, eccentric and footloose, yes, but full of high spirits, tall tales and a get-a-load-of-this exuberance. Today's papers come across as more the Cousin Edwina or Grandfather Benjamin type--proper, polished and professional, but also starched, sanitized and short on spontaneity.

Consider the Houston Chronicle of September 26, 1963. The paper's lead story kicks off with this grabber: "The Texas Department of Public Safety knows the identity of all Communist Party members in Texas."

Three other stories line the top of page one, headlines bumping

A local police chief accuses the "P-TA" of being "aligned with gambling interests."

"Stool pigeon Joseph Valachi" is reported " 'singing' freely to Senate investigators about operations of the sinister 'cosa Nostra' [sic] gangland syndicate."

And, chillingly: "President Kennedy is planning to visit Texas late in November on a political foray... Sources said there was likelihood he would visit Dallas..."

To read 1963 newspapers is to re-enter a pre-Watergate, pre-Vietnam, pre-Dealey Plaza world. It is to roll back a gigantic cultural loss of idealism.

Papers of the 1960s seem naively trusting of government, shamelessly boosterish, unembarrassedly hokey and obliging. There was apparently no bottom to the threshold for local news and photos. Writing was matter of fact, and stories were surprisingly often not attributed at all, simply passing along an unquestioned, quasi-official sense of things. The world view seemed white, male, middle-aged and middle class, a comfortable and confident Optimist Club bonhomie. With it came a noblesse oblige sense of purpose. A paper was inextricably woven into its community, a self-anointed major player almost preening with pride and duty.

The 1960s papers appeared to take some forms of news--particularly state and foreign coverage--more seriously than today's do. Their sweeping accumulation of short and sundry items, the nonstop parade of local names and faces, the plentiful local photos recording quotidian community themes, together built a powerful shared appreciation of local life. But the communities they reflected tended to be narrow and non-inclusive.

Overall appearance is the first change you notice. The type-heavy front pages of the older papers--all in black and white, of course--cram 15 or more stories into eight gray columns, relieved by only a few small photos and almost no relaxing white space. Clashing headlines, jigsaw-puzzle design and vertical makeup intensify the harsh effect.

Inside pages seem disorganized and lackluster. Stories wrap out from under their headlines and frequently end in mid-sentence (a common problem in those hot-type days). News, features, fillers and art are combined into indifferent hodgepodges. For instance, a single page in the May 3, 1963, Las Vegas Review-Journal contained a news story from Yugoslavia, a report on local building permits and a "Tips for Teen" feature column with a perky drawing.

Older papers are sprinkled with idiosyncratic shorts and "did you know?" fillers ("Prizes awarded to winners in the ancient Greek Isthmian games consisted of a wreath of wild celery"). They also scatter local photos throughout all sections, breaking up type on national and world pages and providing a stream of local flavor. Today's computer-formulated pages fit more neatly and rely on wire photos and computer graphics outside the local section. The gain in attractiveness and orderliness is clear, but it is offset, at least partly, by a loss in localness and personality.

Granted, many of the '60s photos were best-forgotten bathing-beauty and grip-and-grin shots. Macon featured eight "pretty milk-maids" on page one. A Las Vegas cutline referred to "chorus cuties." But local events and faces showed up in many other ways:

A full photo page of local people and their pets (Macon).

A local couple waving from the airplane stairway as they embarked on a "coast-to-coast" trip won in a sales contest (Las Vegas).

A cast shot of 10 schoolgirls who will be "doing the boogie woogie" at an upcoming recital (Las Vegas).

A 13-year-old eighth-grader sent home from school because her skirt was too short (Cleveland).

The state printer holding up the new budget as it rolls off the press (Topeka).

A local rabbi launching a series of book lectures, the mayor donning a 10-gallon hat to open the livestock show, and a picture page of "one day's social activities" (Houston). In terms of content, the older papers seem a little like old-fashioned hardware stores, with items stashed into every nook.

The May 2, 1963, St. Louis Post-Dispatch contained, by my count, 145 local news, business, sports and social items--from a health department study of radioactivity in milk to items about a hometown girl winning a speed-typing contest and a man who shot himself in the finger.

One Saturday in 1964 the Topeka Daily Capital carried box scores for a staggering 101 high school basketball games. A single page in the January 8, 1964, Commercial Appeal contained 20 local stories, 19 of them under one-column headlines.

Virtually everything qualified as news: minor crimes, kids' birthday parties, speeches to civic clubs. When Miss Georgia sang for the Rotary Club, Macon reported it. When Nevada's U.S. senator came down with flu, the Las Vegas Review-Journal took notice. When a junior college student council presented a "panel discussion of mutual problems," the Topeka Capital advanced it with a story.

This item, reprinted in its entirety, earned front-page play in the Houston Chronicle:

"A blonde with a patch over her nose fatally shot a waitress, Juanita Daniels, 32, at Grimm's Cafe, 1610 Cullen, today. A waitress said the blonde pulled a pistol and threatened 'to shoot everyone.' Police arrested the blonde."

These days, social and personal items have almost vanished from the paper. But news of bridge parties, visiting grandchildren, out-of-town vacations and debutante balls filled '60s feature sections. It was news in Houston, for instance, when Cecile (Mrs. Carl) Stuebing treated her friends to a post-holiday party to "rest up from parties" (on the same day that Dan Rather, the Southern bureau chief for CBS News, was named "outstanding young man of 1963" by the Jaycees). St. Louis alerted readers that "Mr. and Mrs. John R. Kirk Jr...have returned home from a 10-day trip east." Club news abounded; if the Toastmasters, the Geranium Society or the VFW Auxiliary met, they made the paper. Boy Scouts and Camp Fire Girls drew regular coverage, often through weekly columns.

The 1960s approach to public service seemed assuredly community-centered, almost didactic.

A January 1964 Plain Dealer story devoted almost 20 inches to a Kiwanis Club speech by the paper's editor and publisher, Thomas Vail, headlined, "Vail Calls for Dynamic Leadership to Put Cleveland Ahead of Rivals."

That same month, Macon reported "Sermons Set on Problems of Youth." The story began, "A series of 'frank and straight to the point' sermons especially directed to the problems and interests of youth will begin Sunday at Mulberry Street Methodist Church."

On another day, the Richmond Times-Dispatch published a front-page essay by former President Truman, detailing his advice on world issues, and a local anti-drug feature, headed "Dope Addict Needs $30 a Day."

The older papers seemed duty-bound to chronicle news of record. They produced regular lists of marriages, divorces and births--as do most of today's papers--but also often listed court dockets, grand jury actions, hospital patients, newly naturalized citizens, ships in port, driver's license suspensions and burial permits. Some listed every fire call. Others even covered elementary school sports results.

Overall, government coverage was ample and prominent in the '60s, focusing largely on basic executive and legislative branch stories about presidents, governors, mayors, Congress, statehouses and city councils. Speeches and local ordinances were often printed verbatim. Preview stories, rare today, frequently appeared before even routine meetings ("City Council may ease up on regulations requiring cabbies to wear hats").

As for tone, reading the older papers challenges at least two common criticisms of today's papers--that modern journalism veers more toward sensationalism and shows less respect for privacy than the media once did.

The '60s pages brim with brites and peculiarities ("Crazed Elephant Terrorizes City"). Cleveland put a mate-swapping case on page one ("Two couples who traded spouses finally settled their differences out of court here yesterday as to who will rear whose children"). Richmond did the same when a British doctor announced there was no cure for hangovers. "Bites Off Ex-Wife's Ear," a page-two story in St. Louis blared.

Crime coverage was extensive and often wallowed in personal details. Houston, for example, delivered a painful play-by-play on the suicide of a local dentist who had learned he was going blind. It described how the man and his wife, both named, fought over a packet of sedatives until he wrested them away and swallowed a fatal dose.

Much of the 1960s-era coverage now seems wildly dated, of course. One paper reported on a mother jailed for not cleaning her house. Photos and stories regularly patronized women ("trusted grandmother accused of forgery," "sextress Brigitte Bardot is seeing Brazil with boyfriend"). A Sunday magazine story was headed, "Women Will Buy Anything!" A photo showed a local employee dipping her feet in a fountain, and the cutline concluded, "The photographer caught her just before she peeled off her stocking."

For a story about a local woman moderating a panel of federal officials, the Plain Dealer led with, "No one in Cleveland underestimates the power of a woman when that woman is Mildred Barry." It ended: "And it can be said without fear of contradiction that [she] will be the most attractive person on the stage at Hotel Statler Hilton."

Black people were barely visible, except in photos of civil rights demonstrations. Macon provided a zoned page labeled "Social and Personal News of Our Colored Community"--a department, the paper reported, "edited and managed exclusively by colored people." (Macon also ran a hard-hitting 1963 editorial favoring church integration: "A church that professes, Sunday after Sunday, to be engaged in a great crusade to bring all men into the fellowship of Christ should not be shocked when someone of another color presents himself to partake of that fellowship.")

Some references to race were shocking, even allowing for the segregationist times. A Las Vegas photo of freedom marchers in Georgia carried an all-caps overline that screamed, " 'GIMMIE THAT SIGN, BOY.' " And Houston juxtaposed photos of civil rights protesters being beset by dogs and fire hoses beside a cheery feature story headlined, "Dogs Valuable Law Enforcers."

Statistically, one day's comparison means little. Still, zooming in on a single day's coverage--the Thursday in our January sample for 1964 and 1999--helps illustrate many changes we found.

The January 9, 1964, St. Louis Post-Dispatch came in seven sections (more than most papers of its time): main news, sports, combined food and business, classifieds, a four-page "editorial section," the "Everyday Magazine" feature section and a zoned community news section.

"The Loretta Young Show" and "Queen for a Day" highlighted the day's TV offerings, with "Rawhide," "Dr. Kildare" and "Perry Mason" coming up that night. For 50 cents, you could see "Days of Wine and Roses" at the Tivoli; for $7.77 you could get snow tires at Western Auto. Classifieds were divided into "help wanted--men, boys" ("time study and methods man" needed) and "help wanted--women" ("claims girl" sought).

The paper was a news-features soup. One of the two 20-inch-plus A-section stories had Defense Secretary Robert McNamara assailing Sen. Barry Goldwater, who had criticized U.S. missile readiness. The front page also reported on a man who recorded his neighbors' yapping dog and played back the tape, aimed at the neighbors' home, at 3 a.m.

The four-page editorial section included seven local editorials, three longer analytical articles, five "letters from the people," two editorials reprinted from other papers, two op-ed columns, one book review and an editorial cartoon.

Besides the local photo of the orphaned children, there were shots showing new county medical society officers, six delegates heading for a Junior League conference in Winnipeg, a lesser kudu born at the local zoo and the visiting National March of Dimes Poster Girl.

In the news, the governor was appealing for tougher traffic laws. Cab drivers had elected union officers. East St. Louis was about to vote on requiring taverns to close earlier. The Catholic archdiocese was deploring attacks on the home of a black family that had moved into a "white neighborhood." The school lunch menu featured Texas hash.

In separate stories, two apparent suicides were reported, with names.

Dorothy Jane Atwood's "By, For and About Women" column led with debutante Ann von Weise's visit to college friends and then covered nine other social items.

In the community section, readers found a 26-inch story with five-column art on a local annexation proposal, a photo of a prize-winning baton twirler, and a report that Constable Thomas McNiff was "seriously considering running for mayor of Kirkwood." Local ninth-grader Mary Ann Kosin had just completed a scale model of England's Globe Theater, a project that took her a month and a half.

By January 14, 1999, the Post-Dispatch was far more pleasing visually, with a larger newshole and more sports, business and features. Reader-service material, almost unknown in the '60s, was plentiful. The paper offered a full-column list of numbers to call about school schedules affected by the previous day's ice storm; two-thirds of a page devoted to an impeachment guide in graphic format (with timetable, Q and A, television coverage plans and mugs of the central characters); and a "help yourself" column in which readers submitted questions or sought help with small projects and received answers in future columns.

The sports section devoted six columns to prep sports, with an 11-item "honor roll" of kids' achievements in basketball, wrestling and hockey. The entertainment tab listed a march honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., fishing seminars, wine classes, pet first-aid clinics and dozens of other activities covering music, bands, fine arts and galleries.

In the news, the mayor was leaving on a business-development trip to Greece. The Girl Scout Cookie sale was opening. Local letter carrier Steve Wolters had saved a woman from a fire. An alderman's committee wanted to expand the number of vendors allowed on city streets. The eight-page community news section described how local utilities were handling the Y2K problem, the library was revamping its Web site and aldermen were reconsidering snow removal policies.

Local display photos concentrated on the ice storm and the heroic letter carrier. The community news front included two color shots of local Wal-Mart employees collecting toy bears for children involved in accidents.

The editorial and commentary space--down to a conventional two pages from the four in the '60s--contained three editorials, eight letters, a local editorial cartoon, six reprinted cartoons and three op-ed columns.

Here's how the days' coverage compared statistically:

1999:/ 264 columns, 16 percent to local news, 14 percent to business, 17 percent to sports, 36 percent to features.
1964: 138 columns, 14 percent to local news, 10 percent to business, 11 percent to sports, 32 percent to features.

Item length
21 items under six inches, six over 20 inches in 18-page A section.
1964: 58 items under six inches, two over 20 inches in 16-page A section.

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