Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Offering Some Tough Advice

Magazine article Editor & Publisher

Offering Some Tough Advice

Article excerpt

This column is in three parts, all tough stuff.

Each part is not exactly breaking news.

The column is about the latest newspaper circulation wake-up call and the biting advice of two distinguished critics. The three elements need to be considered as a whole.

First, the circulation reports on the nation's 25 largest newspapers for the six months ending Sept. 30 were so dismal that they bear repeating.

Of the top 25 papers, all but six lost daily circulation, from the Los Angeles Times (56,000) to the Minneapolis Star Tribune (166).

The six daily gainers were the Washington Post, published in about the most protected, non-competitive big-city market known to newspapering; Wall Street Journal, the national wunderkind; Chicago Sun-Times, thanks largely to a price war; Dallas Morning News, courtesy of the death of the Dallas Times Herald and a recovering economy; San Diego Union-Tribune, an all-day combo; and Phoenix Arizona Republic, a population-growth beneficiary.

The Sunday story was only slightly better. Ten of the 25 were gainers. The biggest gainers were the New York Times (20,929) and Atlanta Journal and Constitution (19,302). The biggest losers were the New York Daily News (42,086), Los Angeles Times (26,706) and Philadelphia Inquirer (20,818).

The record of newspapers with circulations of less than 200,000 and less than 50,000 is just about as dreary.

Let two wise men, one in the news business and one on the outside, tell us the reason for the bad news and what we can do about it.

Step up, Professor Gene Roberts of the University of Maryland, Goldsboro (N.C.) News-Argus, New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer. Roberts won the Fourth Estate Award at the National Press Club in mid-November and then unloaded.

He recalled how his old boss, John Knight, had won the newspaper war in Akron, Ohio, thus creating the first Knight newspaper in the Knight-Ridder chain.

Knight's strategy was simple, Roberts said." |Print more news than the opposition. Too many publishers have forgotten that injunction today,' Jack Knight told this club in 1976.

"He was right then," Roberts said, "And seventeen years later, far more publishers have forgotten that it was the most substantive newspaper that became dominant in one competitive town after another. In New York, for example, and Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Dallas and Miami."

Right on, Gene, and let's have a couple more sips of the Roberts' elixir. "Today, as competition diminishes and disappears, many newspapers seem to be in a race to see which can be the most short-sighted and superficial. We are relying too much -- far too much -- on weather maps, charts, graphs, briefs and color. If we had looked upon these devices as nothing more or less than desirable improvements to the general content mix of our newspapers, then our papers would have been all the richer for the additions. But in far too many newspapers, we introduced these devices while slashing newsroom budgets and newshole. The result, all too often, has been that instead of becoming additions to news coverage, the devices have become substitutes for news coverage. And this, in a word, is folly.

"Whether or not investigative reporting is threatened with extinction, it is without question seriously battered. So are many other forms of substantive reporting, including steady and persistent coverage of news beats and subject areas."

Now for the outsider, who delivered a similar message from the same National Press Club podium in April.

Michael Crichton is his name, author of a novel about dinosaurs and Rising Sun, about U. …

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