Editors ponder future of newspapering And they'll hear Clinton and Perot


The nation's newspaper editors, having withstood the worst of an industry recession, gather today in Baltimore to confront an uncertain future of fickle readers and changing technology.

The American Society of Newspaper Editors, a trade association of 450 of the country's largest dailies, meets today and Friday at the Convention Center and travels tomorrow to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis for an address by President Clinton.

Mr. Clinton has won high marks so far for his ability to handle the press, but the editors will also hear today from Ross Perot, whose 1992 presidential campaign treated newspapers as nearly irrelevant. Mr. Perot used talk shows and television "infomercials" to bypass reporters.

The newspaper industry has emerged from the depths of recession with fewer dailies (1,586 at last count) that have smaller staffs writing shorter stories for not always loyal readers.

All is not gloom, though. Newspaper readership and advertising revenues are both up a bit. Not coincidentally, so is attendance at the editors' 70th annual convention (about 700 persons, including some spouses, are expected), and there's renewed optimism in the air.

"A couple of years ago the mood was just black because of the economy," said Frank M. Denton, editor of the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison.

"An awful lot of newspapers were reducing staffs, cutting expenses, and things were just grim. Now we're a lot more optimistic about the future."

Last year, the proportion of American adults who read newspapers inched up to 63 percent on the average weekday and 68 percent Sundays, bucking a 20-year slide, according to the Newspaper Association of America. More newspapers than ever publish Sunday editions as busy readers often skip newspapers during the week but buy them on weekends.

Newspaper advertising revenues edged up by 1 percent in 1992, to nearly $31 billion. Projections are for a 3 percent increase this year.

Media analyst Kenneth T. Berents says some optimism is justified, although he doesn't expect a return to the profitability of the 1980s.

"I expect we'll see that the 1980s were the final golden era of the newspaper business, but that doesn't mean it's still not a good business," said Mr. Berents, newly named co-director of research for Wheat First Securities in Richmond, Va.

Mr. Berents said editors seem to have accepted what he views as the need for newspapers to present information in a way so that people in a hurry will read it and to focus more on local news. One convention workshop is apocalyptically titled: "Fix Local News or Die!"

The Baltimore Sun has paralleled industry trends by reducing staff, cutting costs, de-emphasizing its evening newspaper and exploring electronic ways of delivering news, such as audiotex and fax, says Editor John S. Carroll.

"We're reinvesting heavily in local news coverage because we think it's the core of our business," Mr. Carroll says.

Most Americans, including young people, still read a newspaper, but not nearly as faithfully as a quarter-century ago, says Al Gollin, research director for the Newspaper Association of America. Everyday readership doesn't fit well with the hectic pace that working couples set today, he says.

High-income white men are the most loyal daily newspaper readers, and young people often feel that newspapers don't speak to their age group, says Judy McGrath, executive vice president and creative director of MTV, the music video channel that broke into political campaign coverage last fall.

"The perception of newspapers is they are written and produced by and for a bunch of old white people," says Ms. McGrath, who will speak to the editors Friday.

The editors say they want to increase readership among young people, women and minorities.

"No newspaper can afford to slight any segment of the population without crippling its prosperity if it truly wishes to sustain circulation," says Seymour Topping, a New York Times executive who is president of the editors group.

One workshop will explain how newspapers can conduct "content audits" to make sure they don't neglect women and minorities in their coverage.

"Not only is it morally and ethically correct, but if we don't represent the changing face of our communities, newspapers won't be successful into the future," says Gregory E. Favre, executive editor of the Sacramento Bee, which has pioneered the audits.

An indirect way to broaden coverage is to hire more women and minorities. The editors' goal is that newspaper staffs should reflect the makeup of the U.S. population by the year 2000.

In 1992, only 5 percent of newsroom staff and 3 percent of news executives and supervisors were black. Women made up 39 percent of news staffs and 30 percent of managerial personnel, an industry survey showed.

The editors' group is to install its first black president, William A. Hilliard, editor of the Oregonian in Portland, at the convention.

With cable television, on-line computer services and regional telephone companies challenging newspapers in the market for information, the editors will revisit a perennial question: Are ink-on-paper newspapers doomed to extinction in an electronic age?

Roger F. Fidler, director of Knight-Ridder Newspapers' Information Design Laboratory, says that newspapers' "industrial age" printing and delivery systems will decline, but that their "information age" ways of gathering and packaging news can prosper.

Mr. Fidler's vision of the future newspaper is a notebook-size, electronic "tablet" on which a customer could read a daily newspaper continually updated with the latest information, see news videos, hear interviews, consult the newspaper library and order advertisers' wares.

Electronic publishing will make major inroads in a decade, but Mr. Fidler says editors should view the coming "mediamorphosis" not as a threat but as an opportunity to serve readers better.

"Newspapers are in the best position to take advantage of the new technology," he says.

"I don't think people are that unhappy with the newspaper today. It just isn't fitting in as well with their lifestyles as it did before."

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