As the Globe reels, papers must drop elitism

Newspapers can survive by reclaiming their roots and remembering their readers.

The Boston Globe moved a step closer to the brink last night when its editorial union rejected what amounts to a 10 percent wage cut, leading management to follow up on its threat and slash pay even more.

Conventional wisdom holds that newspapers have been crippled by the flight of advertising to the Web. But they've been crippled just as much by corporate profiteering, arrogance, elitism, and encroaching dullness that have driven away readers, sometimes in droves.

Newspapers must look back to have a future. They need to reclaim their populist roots – roots that the Web increasingly controls.

Consider what newspapers long did best: Even when faced with the immediacy of radio and then TV, good newspapers offered their communities serendipity and surprise, originality, readable-to-good writing, a sense of purpose and shared experience.

The best papers set the agenda in their news and opinion, offering not the tepid voice of the referee seen in the recent Obama-Cheney torture "debate," but a strong voice of moral leadership. It was the courage of a few Southern newspaper editors, for example, that helped end segregation. They took a stand. They didn't, in the name of "balance," give integrationists and segregationists an equal voice.

Newspapers can reclaim this legacy and their leadership by acting more and reacting less. Three steps come to mind:

1. Stop giving readers yesterday's headlines today.

A week before its staff voted, the Globe featured a single story above the fold that "informed" readers that "President Obama said yesterday the government's majority stake in General Motors Corp. will help create a leaner, more competitive automaker, hours after the company filed for bankruptcy...." It was leftovers, not news.

2. Develop more enterprise that measures the impact of government policies on people and community.

Let the wire services cover politicians' speeches and announcements. Newspapers should use their staffs to measure who is affected and how. I'm not talking year-long, Pulitzer-sized projects here. Instead, newspapers should be investing in strong, daily, manageably sized enterprise that leads to change.

3. Spend less time covering the bankers, power brokers, and masters of spin who dominate news, and spend more time in coffee shops and corner stores, bowling alleys and backyards. Beat expertise still counts, but that expertise should be focused on readers, not sources. It should be used to set the paper's course, its agenda. Reporters need to cover how the other 90 percent of us live – and not only when we commit or are victimized by crimes.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote: "Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

Looking at a modern newspaper landscape whipsawed by focus groups and quarterly earnings reports, I wonder whether he'd have said the same today.

In Jefferson's time, the press was often scurrilous but also vital. No one talked about newspapers as the fourth branch of government, a role too many of today's elite journalists seem to take literally.

Since journalism polished its veneer of professionalism in the last century, more reporters hold cum laude degrees. But far fewer live in the communities they cover. Perhaps it's not too late for more of them to wander away from the halls of power onto the streets, away from those making policy pronouncements and toward those living under their weight.

The Internet can create virtual communities for just about any niche audience. But at their best, only newspapers bring together a broader community – one of disparate values, ages, and backgrounds – in a single marketplace of information and ideas.

Economic realities being what they are, more newspapers will fold. But if they work to forge community in real space, if they help us discover what's current in our neighborhoods as well as in our nation, most newspapers will survive.

First, however, they must remember who they are writing for and where their roots are: With us, the people.

Jerry Lanson teaches journalism at Boston's Emerson College.

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