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American Journalism Review
Spend the Money, Go The Distance  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns
From AJR,   July/August 1999

Spend the Money, Go The Distance   

It's critical for newspapers to invest in their news operations to help stem the worrisome circulation decline.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      



BLAME IT ON Lillian Reis.
Lillian, as surely everyone knows, was a showgirl-turned-nightclub-owner in--where else?--Philadelphia. And she was an endless source of great newspaper copy back, as they say, in the day.
How could she not be? She was photogenic and she was smart and she was tough. She had a boyfriend with the K and A gang named Ralph Staino, whom everyone called Junior. And she was the obsession of an old fedora-wearing detective out of Central Casting named Clarence Ferguson.
Fergy was determined to pin the "big heist" at the home of a coal magnate on her, with a vengeance. Captain Ahab was indifferent on the subject of a certain whale compared to the way Ferguson was preoccupied with Lillian Reis.
Of course, you can't blame it entirely on Lillian Reis. I was not only a sports fanatic but also a political junkie at a frighteningly early age.
So there were a number of reasons I fell madly in love with newspapers. A summer stint as a police reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer before my senior year in college sealed the deal. Even spending more years than I'm willing to admit working for six different newspapers failed to cure me. I still love the damn things, as hopelessly as I love the ethereal doo-wop of the Spaniels and the Moonglows, the novels of Robert Stone, Lesley Ann Warren as Eve in Alan Rudolph's wonderful movie "Choose Me."
It's not like newspapers are the only game in town. Television, radio and magazines all have obvious strengths and appeal. And the Internet already has had a dramatic effect on my reading habits. Its potential is as enormous as it is exciting.
But when it comes to presenting information with depth and context in an accessible way, nothing compares to newspapers.
Yet sometimes I worry about the object of my affections.
This is one of those times.
To understand why, read John Morton's column. When it comes to the newspaper business as a business, John Morton is the Rosetta stone. And when he's concerned, I take that very seriously indeed.
John's columns are often bullish about the state of the newspaper industry. He has written much about its sky-high profit margins and about the eye-popping sums for which newspapers have been selling.
In this month's AJR, John takes a hard look at the latest circulation figures. And he doesn't like what he sees. This, he says, is a time when shrinking circulation should be stabilizing and growing. But except at the largest newspapers, it's not.
If the decline continues indefinitely, it stands to reason that newspapers' futures will be seriously clouded. Those profit margins won't stay in the stratosphere forever if more and more people stop reading. The advertisers will ultimately go elsewhere. This will lead to budget cuts that weaken the product, which will only hasten the reader exodus.
Seems like with profits rolling in and competitors circling, it would make sense to plow plenty of those bucks into the newsroom. You know that the threat from the Web will only grow. Why not go into battle with as many weapons in your arsenal as possible?
But that's not always the way it works out, as Tom Boyer's look at the astonishingly slow process of wiring the nation's newsrooms shows (see "Playing Catch-up").
The good news is that the pace seems to at last be picking up. But it's awfully late.
The notion that many reporters still work on dumb computers--basically word processors--without access to e-mail and the Internet and Lexis-Nexis is staggering. It's a little like a state trooper patrolling the Jersey Turnpike on a bicycle.
It's an amazing disconnect: newspapers have poured millions and millions of dollars into their Web operations (see "Fear.com," June) while doing far too little to enable their reporters to take advantage of the riches of cyberspace.
This year the Miami Herald won a Pulitzer for its investigation of vote fraud in the 1997 Miami mayor's race. Months before the election, the paper replaced its outdated newsroom computers with faster PCs. Without the new toys, an investigation as sophisticated and powerful as the Herald's wouldn't have been possible.
If the PCs continue to roll in, that immediate problem will be taken care of. But it's the mind-set that's worrisome.
It's a changing media environment, and a changing society. Nothing lasts forever. It's awfully hard to find 45s these days, or anything to play them on.
So maybe newspapers aren't destined to go the distance. But we don't know that. It makes sense to make them as rich in content, as relevant, as meaningful, as powerful--and, yes, as much fun--as possible. It makes sense to give them the resources they need to compete.
I've been loving them too long to stop now.

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