Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Newspapers and Community Involvement - a Slippery Slope

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Newspapers and Community Involvement - a Slippery Slope

Article excerpt

Newspaper editors and publishers across the country are having a panic attack over declining revenues and the growing fear that the end to the recession will not lead to the end of the industry's woes.

That is because the real cause for alarm is not just the loss of advertising revenues but a steep decline in readership and the general failure of newspapers to attract younger readers, historically the lifeblood of a successful operation.

As a result, newspaper executives have begun the painful process of introspection: attempting to figure out what they are doing wrong and hoping to come up with a formula to win back subscribers.

For many of those executives, the solution is for newspapers to become more involved in the public life of the community--to sponsor workshops, to hold town meetings, to encourage citizens to vote, to help attract new industry to the area.

By doing so, those editors maintain, the public will see the newspaper not just as a purveyor of news and entertainment, but as an essential political actor in the community.

Nevertheless, many of us who have spent our lives in the news business see this as a dangerous trend which risks co-opting the newspaper as an independent voice of the community. We see such a movement leading newspapers to becoming cheerleaders for the establishment, writing only about the good things that happen and consciously ignoring information perceived as negative.

Recently, 30 newspaper editors, academics, and industry representatives met in New York City to discuss ways in which newspapers can become more active in promoting community involvement in politics and civic affairs.

"The newspaper can only remain valuable if public life remains viable," insisted Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at New York University, who keynoted the seminar sponsored by the Kettering Foundation and the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

Rosen makes the case that the newspaper and its reporters and editors must "feel a stake in the community's welfare, a respect for its institutions, a concern for its people." He cites the case of the Columbus Ledger Enquirer, a small newspaper in Georgia.

Several years ago, the newspaper conducted a survey of the area's problems and issued a lengthy report called "Columbus Beyond 2000." Despite the newspaper's commitment to the project and the tremendous amount of time and energy that went into producing the series, there was virtually no community reaction.

As a result, the newspaper decided to organize a town meeting in order to encourage the town's citizens to address the community problems as well as potential solutions. Out of that town meeting, an organization developed to implement the recommendations to improve the community. That organization was led by the newspaper's executive editor.

Similar stories are being told in other towns and by other newspapers:

* In Wichita, Kan., the Wichita Eagle decided to undertake what it called its "Election Project," which included a massive get-out-the-vote campaign. "We are a newspaper in search of an agenda," explained the Eagle's executive editor, Davis "Buzz" Merritt Jr.

* In St. Paul, Minn., the Pioneer Press Dispatch is paying syndicated columnist Neal Peirce, an expert on urban affairs, $68,000 to author a report that will assess the city's major strengths and weaknesses and recommend a strategy for the city's future. …

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