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From AJR,   September 1999  issue

Continuation of Then and Now   


By Carl Sessions Stepp

Carl Sessions Stepp (cstepp@umd.edu) 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.

     

Changing newspapers mean changing newsrooms, of course. To appreciate that point, drop in on any daily news meeting, such as one unfolding on a rainy spring day in Georgia.

A faraway war in a little-known land is sucking the United States into an international maelstrom. Bombs have begun to fall, and editors at the Macon Telegraph are brainstorming their coverage.

It is 1999 but it could be--almost--the 1960s. Certainly at first glance things don't seem that much different from news meetings of a generation ago. Sixteen people gather around a cluttered conference table, plugging their stories and jockeying for scarce news space. The tone is a typical newsroom blend of big-story gravity and mordant humor. "Any casualties so far?" an editor wonders. "Well, I'm not feeling so good," another cracks. The state editor bets a colleague $5 that she can go all day without using the F-word. She loses.

Even the daily budget seems to carry over from distant times. There's that war, an eerie echo of Vietnam ("Kosovo--why now?" reads the slug for one sidebar). The state budget leads with news of the Legislature, as it has on many days over many decades. The sports staff is, as always, blanketing Georgia college hoops and the opening of trout season. And Macon's Cherry Blossom Festival poses its annual test of editors' twisted ingenuity; today's installment has a reporter and photographer riding along on a tour bus. "Should be a good piece with color from the blue hairs," the budget entry deadpans.

But it soon becomes obvious that a 1960s editor time-traveling into this meeting would feel like an alien encountering a foreign language and landscape. The person standing in front of the room, for instance, is the presentation editor. The two people questioning him from the conference table are paginators, and they are discussing what data to give to the Web editor for posting. Talk flows about timelines and centerpieces, 1A promos and swapouts for the zoned sections. There's a move to take the paper up two pages but it creates a problem with the color positions.

Through the glass windows of the conference room, wall-mounted monitors are tuned to play-by-play war coverage on CNN. The carpeted(!) newsroom is quiet and clean, with reporters peeking out from behind the dividers between their cubicles and computer stands. Smokers have been exiled. To get into the building, staff members and visitors must pass a security console and trip an access panel to enter the locked newsroom.

Once inside, you find a remodeled version of the same downtown building in use in the 1960s. It still breathes Deep South hospitality. A secretary is busy ordering drinks for an upcoming function ("That's 14 sweet teas and eight unsweetened, honey"). Editor Cecil Bentley, 51, an easygoing Macon native, answers his own phone and keeps a grits advertisement above his desk. His love for the paper goes back to the days when it covered the kids' league baseball games he played in. He still has the clippings.

But he too has CNN playing in his office and up-to-the-second online news on his computer. Later that day Knight Ridder brass from the chain's California headquarters will drop by for a visit. Long gone are the days when local owner-publisher Peyton Anderson had negligible competition and a stranglehold on Macon's information franchise.

Bentley now presides over a 176-year-old newspaper that, in 1964, came as two editions: the morning Telegraph (circulation 48,000 daily, 66,000 Sunday) and evening News (24,000), both owned by Anderson. In 1969, the Knight chain bought the papers, and in 1983 the morning and evening papers merged. Today the Telegraph's circulation is 71,000 daily and 97,000 Sundays.

Bentley has been editor here since 1996. After attending the University of Georgia, he went on to edit several smaller papers before coming home to run the Telegraph. The editor has a marketing degree; on the other hand, Bentley offers with a grin, the Telegraph's publisher and marketing director both have journalism degrees. And the fact is, he sometimes considers himself "as much of a change agent as a journalist." In the past three years, he says, Macon has redesigned the paper, restructured the newsroom and replaced the computer system--steps few editors dreamed of in the 1960s.

Yet Bentley doesn't mean to radicalize the place. For example, the Telegraph, like many papers, tried dividing its newsroom into topic-based teams, but finding it unwieldy soon returned to a more traditional organization. Instead, Bentley aims to move the Telegraph back to the future--to regenerate the paper's essential but elusive status as the town's trusted supplier of indispensable local news.

He is a walking carrier of the let's-shake-things-up gene. "To be around Cecil Bentley is to learn to live with change," one of his section editors says dryly. But Bentley says he spurns change for change's sake. "You hope all the change is leading to better content in the paper," he declares. "If it doesn't do that, then don't do it."

In the '60s, newspapers owned the town--or thought they did. Television was nowhere near the competitor it would become. The "web" was something spiders made in the curbside metal boxes where people's daily papers were stuffed. Suburban papers, aggressive weeklies and alternative city tabloids weren't yet fearsome rivals. Daily newspapers competed among themselves, but as an institution the daily press reigned supreme.

Cecil Bentley knows those heady days are history.

Today's editors live, instead, in an oddly paradoxical age. Newspaper profits are rocketing, but circulation--and confidence--continue to slip. In the most pessimistic circles, something approaching a death watch is on, and even the optimists can be caught looking over their shoulders, or, worse, gazing at the backsides of competitors that already seem to have surged past them. In a sober-up-or-else comment at this year's American Society of Newspaper Editors convention, Intel Chairman Andrew Grove warned that newspapers could be three years away from meltdown. "Nothing sharpens the awareness of a situation like the sight of the gallows," he said.

Most editors disagreed, but everyone listened anxiously. They know the figures. In 1964, average weekday adult readership of newspapers was 81 percent; by 1997, according to the latest Newspaper Association of America data, it had fallen to 59 percent. In 1964, there were .5 newspapers sold per adult; by 1997, the figure was .3.

That helps explain why Bentley considers himself a change agent, welcomes focus groups and readership research, and tries to marry the 5 Ws of journalism with "the 4 Ps of marketing: price, promotion, product and place." Like many other editors, he believes newspapers can survive and thrive, but must transform themselves to do so.

"A lot of what we are doing is going back to the basics," Bentley says. "We have quit defining government as such--because that makes people's eyes glaze over. But you think of it as taxes and services and the stuff that makes a difference in your community. Instead of public journalism and civic journalism, we're just talking about good journalism. The public is going to buy us more than ever if we can tell them what's going on, how it affects them and why it matters."

Bentley's paper backs up his talk. A May 1998 edition, for example, front-pages a thoughtful examination of how a local county is coping with booming growth. The article brims with quotes, facts and insights from regular people as well as government officials, taking a broad look at an issue concerning both government and citizens.

The numbers, too, underline the Telegraph's preoccupation with local matters. From 1963-64 to 1998-99, according to our survey, local news doubled, from 224 total columns to 454.

And the attractive, well-arranged, modern Telegraph all but wags with reader-friendliness. Page two starts with a "Day by Day Event Planner," a compendium of local happenings. The editor's phone number is listed, as are the e-mail addresses of a half dozen executives and, naturally, the Telegraph's Web address.

Local listings are everywhere. If anything, the Telegraph runs calendar-wild: "Doers and Watchers," dozens of sports events from baton twirling to paintball tourneys; "People's Agenda," on local government; "Support Groups," six columns of contacts on topics from amputees to grief; "Healthy Dates," listing flu shots and weight workshops; "Datebook," a business-section list of meetings and conventions; "Praise Dates," a religion calendar; "Dates to Dig," for gardeners; "Senior Calendar;" "Parents' Notebook." There are lists of family reunions and wedding anniversaries, "News 2 You" (for kids) and "Next Level" (for teens), a "Happy First Birthday" column and the "75-and-Over Happy Birthday Club."

The zoned news section features "Local Shots," photos submitted by readers; school, sports and military items; lists of volunteer opportunities. One day's club calendar carried 59 separate listings. A Neighbors tab ran 24 pictures of local people, mostly kids, at parades, elementary schools and church festivals.

Yet despite such impressive tallies, you still encounter the wistful feeling that the newspaper, as a place and as a product, just isn't what is used to be.

John Krueger has worked at the Telegraph since 1963. Now the editorial page copy editor, he has been a reporter, assistant sports editor, wire editor, news editor and Sunday editor, among other jobs. He enjoys his work and feels today's paper has more depth and variety--but he finds the newsroom less sociable and collegial. He misses local owner Peyton Anderson, who "knew everybody." "He would have picnics at his house," Krueger remembers. "Now it's more impersonal and the [corporate] headquarters is out in California. There is more emphasis on making the bottom line. There was more of a family-type atmosphere back then."

Longtime reader Hyman Weiss, who moved to Macon in 1958, finds the contemporary paper more willing to stand up to local politicians and businesses, but he too misses something. "Local color," he calls it. "They just don't have it." And, he echoes, "Today everything is dollars and cents."

Juanita Jordan worked for Anderson in the Telegraph newsroom of the 1960s. Now she runs the Peyton Anderson Foundation--his legacy to Macon--from a building elsewhere in town. Here is her perspective:

"The paper back in the 1960s was very, very much local news, more about citizens doing things that were not necessarily earth-shattering. Today, you either have to be crowned king or shot almost to have a story written about you. I really think that's a loss."

But, I ask her, what about the zoned news and neighbors sections and multitude of local listings and nuggets?

She pauses. "Usually the pictures are small, and the items are small, and it's not easy reading. So I usually pass it by."

Nostalgia can be a trap, and not just for newspapers. Modern medicine saves more lives than ever, yet we still grouse about HMOs and yearn for the days of house calls. Schools teach students more today than their parents ever learned, yet we carp about failing education.

Jon Margolis titled his recent book about 1964 "The Last Innocent Year," and clearly the tidal forces of those times proved pivotal for newspapers as well as society. But as former Miami Herald Publisher David Lawrence pointed out in a recent speech, "Journalists ought not to be suckered into feeling that they somehow missed some 'golden era.' The day of the idealist in newspapers is not gone. Good journalism will always be able to make its mark on our world."

And so it does. During one of our sample weeks in September 1998, the Wilmington News Journal published an eight-page special section, "A State of Tolerance," exploring race relations in Delaware. Beautifully designed and crammed with local names, faces and thoughts, the section drew on polls, interviews, specialists' insights and reader contributions. While it offered hope and encouragement, the package rendered a tough conclusion: "Outside of the workplace or schoolroom, most of us still choose to stay apart... Overt racism is behind us but a subtle new form now challenges us. The expectations of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.--of black children and white children holding hands--for the most part remains a dream."

Indeed, our sample papers are reflexively trying to humanize and deepen their approach to covering public issues and the community at large. To check the results of a new federal law revamping public housing, the Commercial Appeal interviewed local officials but built its story around one resident's experience. The Las Vegas Review-Journal, filled in the 1960s with promotional photos and puff pieces for local showplaces, fronted a January 1999 piece entitled, "Gaming Executives: What's A CEO Worth?" The Review-Journal's Sunday "In Depth" section dealt with the aftermath of a deadly explosion at a local rocket-fuel plant.

Our survey shows that today far more space is given over to such issues as welfare, transportation, food safety, justice and the environment, and in more parts of the paper.

The Topeka Capital-Journal's sports section devoted more than seven columns to an illustrated essay on canoeing the Kansas River--part typical adventure tale, part plea for environmental reform: "It's all too easy to view the [river] as simply a political issue and forget that it is in fact a river, a river that is the lifeblood of this entire region."

Likewise, trend stories and bright writing abound. Fresno's page one profile of a high school principal's high-wire life began, "Cynthia Quintana left McLane High School three years ago as a self-professed 'bitch-witch.' She had worked as vice principal: the enforcer of discipline, the one who waded into fights to pull apart the swinging arms, the woman with a quick mouth and a huge heart who oozed with authority. She left because she felt her energy and enthusiasm draining away. But then McLane beckoned, again. And Quintana flung herself back..." Memphis launched a piece on the fate of regional literature studies with the lead, "A course in Southern literature may be gone with the wind from Rhodes College."

Call these examples of a "high end" expansion of many contemporary newspapers--offering readers more big-ticket items like news-features, issues packages, analyses and an elevated design esthetic.

But they have been equally busy on the "low end." Newspapers are running voluminously more tiny type, such as mutual fund listings, sports results, calendars, entertainment guides, full-page TV grids. And the small-news trend has its dutiful side. Among many examples: Wilmington's "Your Help Is Needed" column, seeking blood donors, drivers for the elderly and tutors; Cleveland's "Grapevine," featuring local people's accomplishments; Fresno's "Almanac," listing daily events, births, obituaries and police reports; and Houston's "At City Hall" roundup of local civic happenings.

Especially heartening is that so many papers are interactive, and becoming more so by the second. Our study found not just more letters to the editor today, but more reader-comment columns, reader-participation offers, telephone and electronic outreach to readers, and far, far more published phone numbers and e-mail addresses for reporters and editors.

Consider one day's Fresno Bee. Page one refers readers to its Web site. Page four lists phone numbers for nine executives, 10 editors and two bureaus, plus numbers for news tips, news faxes and faxed letters to the editor. The religion page contains a "how to reach us" box. The back page lists five different phone numbers for calling in corrections. The local section has a call-in poll and directs readers to a 24-hour newsline. The op-ed page contains three columns by local writers and a box on how to submit yours. And the weather page lists still another set of phone lines for current and extended forecasts.

For all these advances, contemporary newspapers have their flaws. They seem less attentive to state and foreign news. Their featurey feel appears to signal a relative shift toward entertainment at the expense of news. One disappointment that showed up in both periods of our survey: a surprising dearth of original investigative reporting.

Beyond the hard data, a close reading of these 10 papers and others like them yields signs of the newsroom anxieties that have been documented elsewhere in the State of the American Newspaper series, and which I have seen first-hand in a decade's worth of editorial consultations. These include increased mistakes in copy (tied to such factors as reduced quality control and overstretched copy desks), demoralization over rising productivity demands in an age of downsizing and cost cutting, and a clash between marketing and public service mindsets. Forces like these have plunged the industry into a crisis of confidence at a time when many papers are, arguably, at a peak in terms of quality.

Yet one wonders, at heart, if it isn't another intangible that should be an even greater worry: the question of personality and connection--that essential, ephemeral quality that can make the difference between readers speaking fondly of "our paper" or simply "the paper."

One day in Macon, I stood in the newsroom lobby waiting for Cecil Bentley. The phone rang, and a clerk answered. From what I heard, the caller wanted to inform the paper about an upcoming religious revival. The clerk courteously took the information and promised to list the event. But the caller evidently wanted more. Finally, the clerk explained with a sigh, "We have a form that we follow, ma'am."

Thirty-five years ago, the paper probably would have run a three- or four-graf item on the revival, listing a couple of local names and a sermon topic or two, maybe with a photo of workers erecting the revival tent. Today it follows the form. The item gets in, in small type, making room for many more such items. There is more coverage, but it sometimes feels like less.

It is a bedeviling quandary. Newspapers today undeniably run far more news than their 1960s cousins. But a strong perception lingers that some essential local ingredient--be it a fixed sense of region, state, or even state of mind--has been lost.

That shifting perception may be the most worrisome change of all.


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