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From AJR,   January/February 2000  issue

Many Words Later, Time To Pause   

Roberts-Kunkel series on newspapers will echo into the future.


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

After about 250,000 words, AJR has come to the end of its 18-piece series on The State of the American Newspaper (see "Down and Out in L.A."). We believe it to be the most important study of newspapers ever published.

It still feels incomplete. One reason is that the scene continues to change very rapidly, as it has throughout the series.

With the kickoff issue, May 1998, we said the series would examine newspapers' "quality and reach, their ownerships, their internal dynamics and their service to community and country."

It was a mistake to assume, as a few people did, that the project would come to foreordained conclusions. A lot already had been said about conglomerate ownerships and business-office influences that are antithetical to good journalism. Then, as the series unfolded, the reasons for these concerns became more evident.

But we found a number of surprises, including ways in which good companies are handling the challenges. And we found new juggernauts in the ownership field that had been scarcely noticed.

Gene Roberts, now often described as the "legendary editor," directed the series from his perch on the faculty of Maryland's College of Journalism.

Critical to the series was the commitment of Rebecca W. Rimel, president of the Pew Charitable Trusts, who knew that the best way to influence journalism for the better was through good journalism. Pew has funded the Project for Excellence in Journalism, headed by media critic Tom Rosenstiel, which in turn made grants for our series. And we were extraordinarily fortunate to have Tom Kunkel, a superb writer/scholar and former newspaper editor, to edit the series, with the assistance of some other able hands.

Our intention was to report--to evaluate, too, but not to simply declare opinions about the complex issues facing us.

The funding for the project was substantial--nearly $2 million. That made it possible to engage some of the country's best nonfiction writers--five of them Pulitzer Prize winners and one a National Magazine Award winner--to spend not a few days but weeks on the road researching and interviewing.

Traveling tens of thousands of miles to see for themselves, they were refreshed by the experience. There is a lot to inspire us in newsrooms everywhere.

Not all the questions explored led us to final answers. How will the continuing concentration of ownership affect newspapers? What about the declining coverage of the state and federal governments and waning emphasis on foreign news? Will the locally owned weekly disappear? What will the convergence of media forms do to news and news values?

Although the series ends in this issue, we hope to revisit some of the project's discoveries and update you. Already we know of changes that ensued. If the series' findings have entered the consciousness of the country's most thoughtful journalists, as I think they have, it should continue to reverberate.