Then and Now

Article excerpt

This is the 14th in a series of articles devoted to a critical examination of the American newspaper industry. The series is being produced by the Project on the State of the American Newspaper, an initiative of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and affiliated with the University of Maryland College of Journalism. The Project's editor in chief is Gene Roberts. The editors are Thomas Kunkel and Carolyn White, and the researcher is Rachel Powers. The project is funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Previous installments can be found at www.ajr.org.

Softer news, fewer quirks and twice the space: A major new survey reveals how papers have changed--for better and worse.

ON THURSDAY, JANUARY 9, 1964, READERS OF THE ST. LOUIS Post-Dispatch awoke to a five-degree day. Their paper cost seven cents. Its front page featured 14 stories and three photos. Four bumping heads tombstoned their way across the top. A four-column lead reported that President Johnson, trying to budge a nation still numbed by the assassination of John F. Kennedy, was pushing his legislative agenda on Congress.

The paper was a happy mishmash of serious news and oddities. From the three local, nine national and two world stories on page one, readers learned about a proposed merger involving seven local towns, infighting among county Democrats, a reform plan that South Vietnam's premier hoped would help win a war there--and a 16-year-old girl caught running a moonshine still.

At the bottom of the page they discovered that the local YWCA was launching an anti-girdle campaign. "A girdle is a girl's worst enemy," the unbylined, 6-inch stow began, accompanied by art of local women throwing away the offending undergarments.

That issue of the Post-Dispatch was crammed with no fewer than 137 local items--about news, sports, business and society matters. On page three, an excruciating local photograph showed five sad-faced children left motherless after a shooting in which their father was charged. A four-page editorial section included three long analytical articles, but otherwise few stories throughout the paper exceeded six column inches. Only two A-section stories topped 20 inches.

Thirty-five years later, on Thursday, January 14, 1999, St. Louis arose to another brisk day (24 degrees) but a different-looking newspaper. The Post-Dispatch now cost 50 cents. Its modular front page, with no bumping heads, carried four stories (three local, one national, all jumping) and five photos, the most prominent a four-column color shot of an ice storm that had paralyzed the region the day before. A digest-index ran four inches deep across the bottom.

A banner headline previewed the noon opening of President Clinton's impeachment trial. The front page also covered the ice storm (story, two photos, fact box), a local nurses' unionization vote, and local nuns' efforts to prepare by hand 130,000 communion hosts for the impending visit of Pope John Paul II.

Overall, the broadsheet paper featured fewer but longer stories (69 local items, about half the 1964 total), far fewer oddities and far more graphics and reader-service material. There were fewer national and international pieces and local personal items. A 36-page entertainment tab, unmatched by anything in the 1964 edition, contained five local bylines plus hundreds of listings, from "jaunty jalopies" at an area auto show to local casino gambling events.

Times had changed, and so had the Post-Dispatch, one of 10 papers reviewed in an extensive State of the American Newspaper survey of how newspaper content has evolved over a generation.

The survey sought to answer a simple question: Amid all the turbulence in society and in newsrooms, with all the talk of the need to innovate, has the newspaper itself, the bundle that ends up in the reader's hands every day, really changed all that much?

The short answer is yes. …