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British beg for more serious news

"There appears to be a switch-on rather than a stay- tuned," says Peter Rosier, publicity officer for BBC television news. He is commenting on an unexpected phenomenon here: the growth of public interest in serious news, both electronic and printed.

"News was always an inheritance program," Mr. Rosier explains. It captured viewers who stayed tuned after earlier programs. Over the past year, however, the Nine O'Clock News -- 25 minutes of international and national news by one of the world's most respected news networks -- has been "steadily the biggest winner" of audiences on its channel, BBC 1.

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It finally reached a point in May, he says, when the news drew an even larger audience than a widely popular football match immediately preceding it.

Similar things are happening in the "quality" press (the term the British use to describe influential papers and to distinguish them from the "popular" dailies).

The serious newspapers are experiencing an unexpected sales boom since their flagship, The Times of London, reappeared in November after a year-long strike.

Figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations show that the combined sales of the four quality dailies -- the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, and The Times -- topped 2.3 million in April -- a 7.4 increase over the combined figures for the first three alone in the period preceding the return of The Times.

Even more dramatic is the growth of the serious Sunday market. The Sunday Telegraph, the Observer, and the Sunday Times are now 31 percent ahead of last October's sales figures for the first two.

"People absolutely don't know what's happening," says Jackie Pilot of the Newspaper Publishers' Association, commenting on attitudes within the industry.

Pessimists have long been predicting the demise of newspapers. The year 1980 , she says, was to have been a year for a falloff in sales. Inflation was expected to bite at the quality dailies, which sell for up to 20 pence (around 45 cents) per copy.

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But advertising revenue has held steady. And the 331,000 tons of newsprint purchased throughout the industry in the first quarter of 1980 marks a 2 percent increase on the first quarter of 1979.

Many suspect what Times Editor William Rees-Mogg calls "duplication." During The Times strike, people got used to one of the other quality papers -- and then found, when The Times reappeared, that they had to have both.

Judy Thomas, marketing manager of the Observer, points to the coverage given to The Times dispute in other papers. The result: a lot of rethinking by readers about the value of the quality press, an da renewal of interest in it. She also notes that this has been a period of "unprecedented hard news," with papers scrambling to cover stories from Iran, Afghanistan, the Middle East, the Olympic boycott, and such local flare-ups as the siege at the Iranian Embassy in London.

"I can't recall in something more than ten years any period that has been quite so exciting in that respect," she says. n a nation whose two television networks produce nearly 50 hours of news and current-affairs programs between them each week -- more than a week's work for anyone who wants to see them all -- why are newspapers in such demand?

James Curran, a senior lecturer in media studies at the Polytechnic of Central London, says that television itself "has generated interest in newspapers." His own research, analyzing changes in newspaper content over the past five decades, records a steady shift away from news reports to features. Television, he says, has "whetted appetites for coverage in terms of comment rather than content." Since the 1960s, he adds, public-affairs commentary in the press has "more than doubled."

He is wary, however, of attributing the quality-press upsurge to an expanded market of university-educated readers. Research by publishers, he says, shows that the level of reading intensity (the proportion of those who read through to the end of public affairs articles) has remained constant since the end of World War II -- although education has increased dramatically in the same period.

Instead, he thinks the increase "may be because we are entering a new era of crisis."

A recent poll of television viewers' preferences in the Sunday Times also evidenced a serious turn of mind: Viewers called for more documentaries and less sports coverage.

Perhaps, as Mr. Gordon observes, "the age of quality newspapers is in the future -- it's coming more and move." m

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