Newspaper Editors Seem Pressed by Uncertainty

Article excerpt

THE NATION'S newspaper editors, gathered in Washington for their annual convention, seemed racked by collective anxiety about nearly everything.

In their formal panel discussions and their less formal gatherings around hotel bars and lobbies, participants at the American Society of Newspaper Editors meeting expressed uncertainty about the content of their papers, about cost-cutting pressures from publishers, and about readers' opinions of the press. At a well-attended session on political correctness in the newsroom, they heard themselves criticized for being at once too liberal and too conservative - too mean and too cowardly.

"I think everyone is searching for what is the next path, the next door, for the industry," said Maggie Balough, of the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman. "The answers used to be more readily on people's tongues, and some of these old, quick solutions don't seem so helpful."

In a panel titled "Are Newspapers on the Right Track?" Eugene C. Patterson, a former editor of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, had harsh words for the very things editors have stressed at these gatherings for a decade - namely color graphics and short writing.

"The newspapers on the wrong track have a certain set of characteristics: They are trying to mimic their electronic competitors. . . . They are given to short takes instead of explanation of complex issues. . . . They tend to be too spooked by the electronic superhighway and fail to look at our strengths and their weaknesses," Patterson said.

What then, the panel moderator asked, should editors say to publishers who suggest that people - especially young people - are increasingly pressed for time and no longer read long articles.

"One of the best arguments is to look at history," argued Eugene L. Roberts, the newly appointed managing editor of The New York Times, who has criticized the industry's drift away from writing and content. "There was a big movement toward tight writing and an abhorrence of stories that jumped pages in the 1950s and 1960s," and it passed, he said.

The day President Kennedy was killed in Dallas, The Dallas Morning News had a rule that no story could jump, he pointed out. "One of the most important stories of this century occurred in their city, and they didn't jump the goddamn story! …

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