AS NEWSPAPERS INEVITABLY move into the electronic age, the importance of quality and of maintaining the industry's core values remain essential.
At the annual conference of the International Federation of Newspaper Publishers (FIEJ), now known as the World Association of Newspapers, several American newsmen opined on the subject.
Washington Post publisher and board Chairman Donald Graham pointed out that, "There isn't much question that today -- with a communications system that will look primitive in just a few years -- people do want to get information on PCs that they would have gotten from newspapers a few years ago.
"However," he added, "I believe some things won't change in the migration to electronic news."
Good journalists, those with "an ear and a heart and a brain to understand a bit more about the story and put it into words ... cannot be summoned into being by fiber-optic lines and highspeed modems."
While Graham said he understands that, "There is a big technological and regulatory challenge facing every medium, and [that] coping with that challenge is the critical imperative of corporate management," he added that, "Personal history compels me to insist we have an old job to do, and our communities will be better off if we do it better.
"Whatever form news organizations, and news media take in the future, they still will be trying to explain an impossibly complicated world to readers and viewers," Graham said. "That job is hard regardless of technology, but it remains our most important responsibility."
Associated Press president and CEO Louis D. Boccardi's remarks followed a similar line.
Boccardi noted that the "new technologies, if pursued with an awareness of the editorial values that we all cherish, can serve to strengthen and expand the traditional horizons of newspapers."
Boccardi said he believes "that newspapers will survive, unless we let them die."
"There is no change in the fundamental mission of the newspaper -- to present a coherent picture of local and distant events, to serve as a medium of context and continuity, at times to entertain, and to facilitate commerce through its advertisements," he said.
"I believe these functions will endure. The new technologies offer new ways to carry them out, even as print endures. They bring new players, to be sure, but they bring opportunities for newspapers as well," Boccardi remarked.
"What we need to do now is to look inward at the kind of newspapers we produce, and the kind of service we provide to our readers;" he said. "And then, we must look outward to see what the new technologies offer us to improve and supplement the traditional newspaper product."
Conceding that, "With so many other, more immediate, sources of information available, the newspaper can no longer be expected to offer readers the first word on major news developments;" Boccardi noted that it nevertheless "has a unique ability to focus and explain events, to provide explanations, without which the rush of newer, faster news can make little sense."
The AP chief also warned against online promises of providing only customized news, as requested by the customer.
"A public exposed only to pre-programmed subjects will lack the elementary information needed for citizens to exercise their responsibility in a democratic society," he said.
"It's not hard to slip from cyberspace to cyberchaos," Boccardi added. "The growing mass of information must be sifted and organized and put into context for the user, whether it's on the printed page or online, and that means applying the same traditional professional values to both when the subject is news."
Computers also "can and do play an increasingly important role in the editorial process," he said.
"First, think of the changes that the introduction of the computer brought to your newspapers.
"And now, look at your staff's computer not just as tools for writing and editing, but also as gateways to masses of information that can enhance their reporting," Boccardi added. …