Of Newspapers and Their Imperatives

THE practical moralist can take comfort when economic self-interest gets people to do what is really the right thing after all.

This was one of the gleanings from the annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in Baltimore earlier this month. The newspaper industry has gone in just a few years from seeing itself as licensed to print money to seeing itself in a gradual but relentless decline. The future has been projected at newspaper conventions as likely to consist of adults with no time to read, children who don't know how to read, ethnic minorities and immigrants alienated from the mainstream news agenda, a nd an advertising marketplace too fragmented for the term "mass media" to be meaningful.

But as the general economy gradually climbs out of the recession it has slipped back into twice already, as if into a slippery bathtub, the newspaper industry is improving too. One hears talk of "thriving" as well as "surviving" - not that there aren't plenty of challenges remaining, including the structural ones.

Newspapers are being forced - get this! - to reach out more vigorously to their customers, including their once and future customers. They are being forced to redefine news as happenings their readers want to know about, rather than just what their reporters want to write about, or worse, what government officials want to talk about. Newspapers are being counseled to reach out to women readers, particularly, with solution-oriented reporting of social problems; papers are being asked to present context, t o take a holistic rather than fragmented approach to complex public issues.

The discussion of "diversity" (of race and gender, that is) in the newsroom can get a little self-conscious, but editors are right to ask: Do all the people in our community see themselves and their interests reflected in our pages? Or do some groups appear mostly as victims or perpetrators?

Newspapers, in short, are being forced to do for their economic survival things that they should be doing to fulfill their constitutional purpose as ultimately the best forum for the public discussion by which the people govern themselves.

This is not a bad thing. And the various "out" groups lately discovered by editors need newspapers as surely as the newspapers need them. There is no substitute for the nuanced detail of a printed text to articulate the concerns and aspirations of a political challenger taking on an entrenched incumbent, or an alienated young person trying to make his or her way in a world of apparently diminishing opportunity.

Here it must be said that newspapers are still part of a world of "shoulds." They try to present what readers are interested in; they must also present what readers should be interested in. If there is a difference between "the older generation" and "the younger generation" of whatever era, it may be that the older generation has more "shoulds." You should do your homework; you should eat your vegetables. The generation that grew up with the television remote in hand, ready to "zap" at the first sign of something boring on the tube, may not want to hear that there are some things they should read, and read to the end. But they must be told.

Not that newspapers are quite so un-hip and low-tech as some may be accustomed to thinking, however. Even a humble tabloid left on a bus or a park bench is still a good example of a nonlinear, random-access, interactive means of communication. And up until the point where ink hits paper in the press room, today's newspaper is very much an electronic medium, from the reporter punching a story into a computer to the transmission of composed pages via satellite to remote printing plants. Newspaper futurists

are brimming with enthusiasm over the new flat-panel display tablets, a sort of pen-operated legal-pad-of-the-future computer enabling people to read personalized newspapers, which will include full-motion video clips instead of still photos; individualized databases (you could keep your own clip file of articles on Bosnia, or whatever); abstracts of stories, for quick reads, or longer versions of articles than newspapers are now able to run.

One of the convention experts joked that the flat panel may be a throwback to the clay tablets of early Mediterranean civilizations. But the essence of newspapers, after all, is not in their "paperness," but in their text - the words on some kind of page that can be made widely available for readers to consider thoughtfully. The market for newspapers seen in this light is likely to last quite a while.

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