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 AJR  Columns :    TOP OF THE REVIEW    

From AJR,   May 1998  issue

Series On Newspapers Will Be Unique   

Gene Roberts directs this unfolding inquiry.


By Reese Cleghorn
Reese Cleghorn is former president of AJR and former dean of the College of Journalism of the University of Maryland.     

An unprecedented report on newspapers, a series that will appear in every issue of AJR during the next year-plus, will examine their quality and reach, their ownerships, their internal dynamics and their service to community and country. You will hear a lot about it.

Is local news what will protect newspapers' franchises in this era of competition from every side? (What is local news?) Are the church-state walls between editorial and business falling? Do newspapers misuse research in making decisions about news? What companies serve their readers best? How are journalists changing?

xene Roberts and his crew will address these and other questions in reporting on "The State of the American Newspaper."

Ken Auletta, respected New Yorker media writer, begins the series with the Tribune Co. of Chicago. Its reinvention of news practices and its plunge into media diversity pose issues that are looming nationwide. Long before Publisher Mark Willes of the Los Angeles Times became a lightning rod on the church-state issues, the Tribune Co. was poking into the sanctuary.

The reports, each in the 15,000-word range, will be written by some of the country's best writers and reporters. They usually will spend three months on this work.

In our next issue the subject will be the declining number of independent newspaper companies, those with only one paper, and what makes some good and some not. Only about 300 remain among the country's 1,500 dailies. (When AJR reported on them in October 1996 it listed 26 prominent "survivors." Since then, nearly a third have been bought by big companies or gone out of business.) James Risser, the Des Moines Register's two-time Pulitzer winner who is now director of Stanford's Knight Fellowships, is finishing this piece.

Later, Peter Arnett of CNN and formerly AP, probably the leading war correspondent of our time, will write about the status of foreign news coverage.

Other writers include William Prochnau, who wrote a fine book about Vietnam and the press; Cynthia Gorney, author of an acclaimed history of the abortion issue; and Mary Walton and Charles Layton, a married team formerly with the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Roberts is editor in chief of the series, working with two full time editors. This legend from his days with the Inquirer recently completed three years as managing editor of the New York Times. He now is professor of journalism at Maryland, which publishes AJR.

Tom Kunkel, a highly talented former newspaper editor and reporter who now writes first-rate books, is series editor working under Roberts. The assistant editor is Carolyn White, formerly an editor at the Inquirer.

Funding for the project, which is an initiative of Tom Rosenstiel's Project for Excellence in Journalism, is described on page 20.

About half of the reports will deal with journalism issues by analyzing companies, and writers in most cases will visit at least six newspaper sites. Besides talking to people in the business, they are determining what readers think about how well the newspaper is doing its job.

This series will be the talk of newsrooms. It also is the stuff of history. l