Why Newspapers Still Matter

THE Pennsylvania Railroad got into trouble because it thought it was in the railroad business rather than the transportation business: This is a new truism of management consultants helping organizations get a better bead on what their enduring purpose is and find new ways to fulfill it. The newspaper industry is joining in on some of this soul-searching. Profits have been very good, but newspaper reading seems less a fixed habit within our communities than was once the case.

Recession has trimmed advertising revenues, and thus the papers themselves and their staffs. Publishers worry that ad revenues lost during the current cyclical downturn may be lost forever, as advertisers turn to other media.

And so newspapers are feeling a need to reach out to readers in ways they haven't done before; papers are becoming more ``market-driven,'' as the expression goes. This is a horrifying thought to some. After all, newspapers have granted themselves a luxury undreamed of by purveyors of most other consumer products: Newspapers presume to publish what they think their readers should be interested in.

Being market-driven may mean presenting the same material but doing it so as to make it easier for the busy reader - not necessarily the same thing as ``dumbing down'' the news. In the past two years, with dramatic unfoldments in Eastern Europe, in South Africa, and now the Middle East, newspapers have had great opportunities to present their readers with engaging stories, recounting events and giving them context.

By educating readers to care about different parts of the world, newspapers will create a market for more information on these places. As events unfold in the Middle East, newspapers have an opportunity to educate the public in a part of the world of which they have long been ignorant; such an educated public can be a valuable ingredient in the creation of a lasting piece in the region.

One wonders, though, whether, aside from these epic developments that capture the imagination, there is a fundamental disconnect between the news universe of the reader - or would-be or should-be reader - and the newspaper. If some ethnic groups read general-interest newspapers less, is that a reflection on them and their public-spiritedness - or on publishers' inability to see new population groups as new customers to be served?

We can identify three levels of concern about the future of newspapers. Precisely because they can be so profitable, newspapers are in danger of being swallowed by conglomerates that don't understand that publishing a newspaper is different from turning out widgets.

A second concern is that efforts to hold readers will lead to superficiality - to dumping thoughtful political analysis in favor of full-color weather maps.

A third concern is that should-be newspapers readers may be just falling away from the public process generally. The advertiser is interested in readers as consumers, but the editorial matter of a newspaper seeks to engage them as citizens. A demographically focused slick magazine may help an advertiser target a specific market segment - market fragment may be a better term. But what is the forum for considering issues of import to the whole?

Many newspapers are pursuing ways to let the reader order up a paper tailored to his or her individual interests. Is it good simply to reinforce existing interests? And how well will the citizenship-information needs of the demographically undesirable be met?

The triangular relationship of advertiser/newspaper/reader may be starting to break up. At a recent conference of editors and publishers at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, in St. Petersburg, Fla., interest was expressed in seeking independence from advertising income - even if it means raising subscription prices.

Newspaper production has changed dramatically, especially in recent years, but the thing itself - a sheaf of paper with type on it - has remained remarkably constant for a few centuries now. This is not to argue that newspapers are a relic but rather to note how they have lasted.

If a newspaper is essentially a daily record of important events of which citizens must be aware - as the essence of the Pennsylvania Railroad was transportation - then there is a role for newspapers as long as there is a public process.

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