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 AJR  Columns :    FROM THE EDITOR    

From AJR,   April 1999  issue

Playing to Their Strengths   

Depth and context are newspapers’ key advantages. They should exploit them, not try to be something they’re not.

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

"You had better hold on to what you've got."
-- Joe Tex

No one has ever accused Ted Turner of lacking confidence. And it was with his usual bravado that he told the nation's top newspaper editors that they were toast.

The year was 1981, shortly after the launch of CNN, and the force behind the all-news cable channel had been invited to address a convention of newspaper publishers. He had nothing but bad news to deliver. Newspapers were dinosaurs, and in 10 years or so they would be a fond memory.

Well, newspapers turned out to be a fairly hardy breed of dinosaur. Nearly two decades later, they not only are hanging on, they actually seem to be thriving, if those healthy profit margins are any indication.

Yet to hear some people talk, newspapers remain an endangered species. The threat du jour, of course, is the Internet. So much faster, so much more interactive, so much more news hole. So all that.

The sense of imminent doom doesn't just come from Net aficionados. It also comes from the newspaper industry itself. There's a whiff of desperation surrounding some of the frantic efforts in recent years to reinvent the aging behemoths.

Now change is in and of itself not a bad thing. Sitting on a lead is never smart. But neither is it wise to act as if you're 25 points down and time is rapidly running out. That's when you commit dumb turnovers.

Some of the innovations of the past decade or so--coverage of important topics too long ignored, improved business sections, more alluring presentation, effective informational graphics, to name a few--are to be applauded.

But some of the changes are significantly less laudable. Particularly disheartening is the move by some newspapers away from what they do best--covering substantial matters with depth in as compelling a way as possible, providing insight and context harder to come by in other media, digging well beneath the surface to break stories.

The effort to be tight and bright, the predilection to rely on color and gimmicks, the drive to focus on the soft and easy as opposed to the significant (and expensive)--all have been unfortunate moves in the wrong direction.

Newspapers will never fend off the threat from television by trying to be more like television. That's a game only television can win. No, the way papers can prevail is by taking advantage of their substantial, if sometimes overlooked, strengths.

And so it was refreshing to see that the National Press Foundation had picked John Carroll for its prestigious Editor of the Year award. Carroll has injected excitement into the Baltimore Sun by stressing ambitious reporting efforts and vivid, evocative writing. And he has brought with him the sense that news-papers matter, that their mission is a vital one, that sexier, trendier forms of media don't guarantee their demise. And that fear is not helpful, or appropriate.

"Our staff knows that a newspaper can have far more influence in a community than all its electronic competitors combined, and that only a newspaper can seriously aspire to be the conscience, and the goad, of a city, or of a state," Carroll said in accepting his award.

You don't hear much talk like that these days.

It's important to remember who Carroll works for. The Sun is not a wholly owned subsidiary of the Sandinista Group. Its parent company is Times Mirror--the very same Times Mirror headed by Mark H. Willes, who has sent shivers through newsrooms everywhere with his talk of knocking down the walls between business and editorial. Carroll himself is a Times Mirror VP.

So this was a message translated from deep in the heart of Corporate Journalism.

The committee that chose Carroll clearly intended to send a message. According to someone familiar with its deliberations, the panel was swayed by the editor's ability to inspire projects like the Sun's powerful Pulitzer-winning series on the deadly practice called shipbreaking, a massive enterprise on which the paper dispatched reporters around the globe. The committee also was influenced by Carroll's ability to "attract and retain top talent by emphasizing some of the old values of newspapers--such as, 'Forget television.' "

As for messages, Carroll had his own to send. After receiving the award, the soft-spoken editor reminded the press foundation's black-tie gathering that newspapers are crucial and that newspaper work can be both satisfying and heavy with redeeming social value. And he gave the back of the hand to such modern newsroom totems as teams and editors with MBAs and quality circles.

In the words of one astonished onlooker, "He aimed a howitzer at everything corporate journalism holds sacred."

Now none of this means that newspapers should stand pat. They need, among other things, to liven up. They need better writing. They need a better sense of pop culture. And many need to recommit themselves to substance.

But in trying to adapt and flourish in a sometimes daunting media environment, they need to keep true to the qualities that make them essential.