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Forget tough times.

It's bad enough that the Massachusetts Miracle turned into the Massachusetts Massacre, transforming our already modest newspaper, a 12-page, 6,800-circulation daily, into a w-e-a-k-l-y.

But then I started receiving invitations to annual press conventions, invitations that sounded as if they were run off on the same doomsday mimeo machine. They touted a "provocative program ... on handling your newspaper during tough economic times ..." or speakers on how to respond to "tough times," or "face up to tough challenges."

But we need to be talking less about "tough times" and more about challenges that have nothing to do with scarcity. The recession will end. But when we have more money available, will we have more ideas, answers for the 21st Century?

I doubt I know the answers, but let me list a baker's half-dozen questions I'm asking myself.

1. If we nuked our newspaper, if we started at ground zero and tried to build a new newspaper, what would be left of the almost 70-year-old geriatric case now delivered daily to our subscribers?

In the midst of our area's worst downturn in a quarter-century, our executive editor asked for volunteers from the entire staff, not from just the newsroom, to break into teams designed to dissect every aspect of the paper's content over the next four months. Surprise! There was a great enthusiasm for the extra work. In the midst of penny-pinching, morale actually improved.

I like to believe we're talking about changes that involve more than the usual remedies: increased story count, shorter articles, more people stories, punchier writing. We're shooting for no syndicated columns on the editorial page, actively pursuing local contributors who will provide voices from all of our geographical, ethnic and age-group constituencies. We're also trying to focus on the less sexy but more important health, environmental and educational challenges that will be with us for generations: Whether publishing a how-to supplement on recycling or investigating the education crisis, we need to make clear that marketers measurements of reader interest will not rule how we choose to engage and serve the public.

2. Why are editorial pages -- more specifically, editorials -- so terrible?

As a judge of the msot recent ASNE Writing Awards, I read hundreds of editorials. At best, a half-dozen editorial writers convinced me that they knew the issues most important to their communities, that they wanted to address those issues candidly and courageously,and that they had the writing ability -- the passionate, persuasive voice -- to convince someone other than their mothers that their positions deserved community support.

After the judging several of us guessed at the causes of the putrid editorials: Some newspaper groups encourage staff to move from paper to paper, never really connecting with local issues; today's editorialists care more about pretty writing than punch-in-the-nose reforming; tough times encourage don't-rock-the-boat editorial writing. Let's consider eliminating editorial pages altogether and turning the space over to local news, or let's devote to editorial pages at least the enthusiasm we give to, say, coverage of the publisher's favorite charity.

3. How long are we going to get away with giving only lip service to newsroom diversity?

Within the next century, people of color are likely to become a majority, whites a minority, in the United States. Race will remain a central issue everywhere in the U.S., even in my Massachusetts, which you may think of as a lily-white Yankee preserve. True, the 1980 census showed the state to be 93.5 percent white, but consider the message of the 1990 census: in 10 years, the white population grew less than 1 percent; while African Americans increased 35 percent, Native Americans 58 percent, Hispanics 104 percent, and Asian/Pacific Islanders 190 percent. Demographics suggest sound business reasons for hiring, training and promoting and retaining people of color, and yet my sense is that hiring freezes and the recession are being used as excuses for putting diversity on the industry's back burner.

4. We know literacy is key to newspaper's survival. We know that the percentage of Americans who read a newspaper each day has dropped one percentage point a year for two decades, from 73 percent to 51 percent 21 years later. But what can each of us do other than produce graphics-filled, four-color newspapers that look like print versions of MTV?

All of us, however tiny our publications, can let our communities know that we believe in the importance of the written word. Our company's weeklies encourage student journalism at local schools, some providing free composition, and printing. One paper spearheads an "adopt-a-book" program that has raised about $15,000 for a public school. The News publishes a page of locally written book reviews weekly.

5. Does peoples' perception of the journalist suggest something ominous about the future of the First Amendment rights the public grants the press?

The public feels more comfortable with press freedoms for the little guy -- the local publisher who owns the paper he operates. But now most newspapers are virtually all in chains, and experts predict that in a decade five to 10 international media megaconglomerates will dominate the industry worldwide.

The military briefers in the Persian Gulf offer the American public the clean war it wants -- artificial reality, Nintendo-like missiles hitting Iraqi targets -- with virtually no sense of the maimed and mutilated; but journalists seek to report a different, dirty reality, one with corpses by the thousands. One poll indicates most people are satisfied with news as shaped by military briefers and think that military censorship is a "good thing."

Even in a non-military setting, 59 percent of Americans say government should have some power of censorship. More than one-quarter of those surveyed believe the First Amendment's guarantees of free speech do not cover newspapers. In another survey, when students 15-24 were asked which freedom, if America were invaded, they would surrender first, most said freedom of the press; less than three percent would cling to that freedom.

6. What is the newspaper's role?

On a recent Saturday afternoon, I found myself alone at The News, first delivering a paper to an angry subscriber overlooked by his carrier, then rereading a page one story about a funeral for Oswald Laliberte, a 100-year-old former contractor from town. I had two thoughts rereading that funeral story. First, with the ground war in Kuwait about to erupt, wouldn't my big-city brethren get a laugh from a funeral leading page one. Second, the eulogist's description of Laliberte made me think about the proper role of the newspaper. The eulogist said that Laliberte "was more than a builder in our community -- He was a builder of community."

A newspaper is not only a builder of community, it is a definer of a community's issues, a definer of community. Social news, government stories, photos of new service club officers -- they help define community. Yet, according to a 1990 survey, 31 percent of newspaper managers are eliminating those kinds of items because they feel readers are "no longer interested in" them. But perhaps the niche for newspapers is still, in large part, defining the community.

7. Are we wrapping, ourselves in the First Amendment to evade our responsibility to ask hard questions about the ads we accept, the news practices we permit?

The tobacco industry, its lawyers and flacks, are conducting a war to legitimize products that kill. They want to associate cigarette smokers with underdogs, with women and racial minorities fighting for their civil rights. The tobacco companies do that in part with their ads and billboards. They also target donations for needy minority journalism organizations and groups like the Committee to Protect Journalists, which is aimed at protecting the civil rights of journalists. Philip Morris, which once sponsored a First Amendment writing contest, now also funds a "National Bill of Rights Tour," all part of its campaign to promote legal rights for smokers.

One can believe in commercial free speech -- the death merchants' rights to peddle their cigarettes as long as cigarettes are legal -- and still question why newspapers do not voluntarily stop running tobacco ads.

People will want in the 21st century, as they do in the 20th, a press that stands for something more than its own financial self-interest. They will want editors like Edward Bok, who ran The Ladies Home Journal a century ago. In 1892 Bok announced he would no longer accept ads for patent medicines. Other newspapers and periodicals then adopted the same policy.

The ad policy was consistent with articles Bok published that pointed out "curealls" were kill-alls. Bok wrote about the impact of his crusade: "Reputable newspapers and magazines were closing their pages to the advertisements of patent medicines; legislation was appearing in several states; the public had been awakened to the fraud practiced upon it, and a Federal Pure Food and Drug Act was beginning to be talked about."

Smoking causes deaths -- 434,175 of them in 1988, report the Federal Centers for Disease Control. Yet Philip Morris continues to deny that cigarette smoking causes death: "Statistical association does not prove causation." Newspapers, I like to believe, stand for at least not intentionally promoting death, at least trying to tell the truth.

These are tough times, tough times spiritually as well as economically. They cry out for editors like Bok. They call for journalism that gives more thought and courage to questions easier to ask they they are to answer. They call for self-criticism, commitment to just principles, and courage.
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Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Special Report: Journalism vs. the Economy
Author:Ghiglione, Loren
Publication:The Quill
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Apr 1, 1991
Previous Article:Learn more, earn more?
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