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What do readers want? Mystery of the missing Me Generation

REMEMBER the apocryphal college freshman of the '70s who was liberal in his dorm, conservative at home, but just plain confused when he was alone? He has long since graduated and doesn't seem to be confused anymore. He - or she - knows just what he/she wants. It's essentially neither liberal nor conservative. It's the facts, please. Just give him the facts and he can cope.

That, at least, seems to be the bottom line of an extensive survey of American newspaper readers unveiled recently to the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

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What is striking about the 1984 survey is the way the profile of the average reader has changed since a similar survey was done in 1978. It's a sea-change from the soft ''me generation'' approach to newspaper reading - asking for advice columns and personal-fulfillment stories - to a remarkably realist, hard-headed, fact-demanding approach.

Two questions immediately arise: Can such a change actually have happened in just six years' time? And, if so, what caused it?

First, take a look at what the pollsters found as readers unburdened themselves in 1978 and 1984.

To quote the findings: ''Then it was 'me,' 'my life,' 'my problems,' 'my environment'; now it is 'news,' 'facts,' 'basic information.' '' Then it was ''more local and community news''; ''more articles to help them cope. . . .'' Editors in '78 were seen by readers as ''more interested in national and international news than in local news and the day-to-day needs of their readers.'' Now, says the survey summary, it's ''give us the news - hard news, real news. . . . Tell us the facts . . . and we'll do the coping ourselves.''

Other findings:

Readers trust their own paper's accuracy (84 percent agree) more than they do newspapers in general (only 47 precent agree). But they trust newspapers in general more than they do TV. (It's a flawed victory for print over tube: 52 percent of respondents charge newspapers with sensationalizing the news; 81 percent accuse television of such sensationalizing.)

Readers want ''a complete, balanced paper'' - with solid reporting of national and international news, but equal quality in coverage of local news. Paradoxically, they want more detail but say they have less time to read it.

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The famous newspaper gender gap is closing. Business and sports pages used to be ghettoes for men; home, style, food, and fashion (nee women's) pages used to be ghettoes for women. Women, like men, in the 1984 survey wanted more space devoted to business, consumer, health, children, family, environment, and sports coverage rather than personal advice and social columns.

Despite a marked lessening of distrust of their own paper's editors since 1978, sampled readers still complain about a lack of fairness, about sensationalism, manipulation, and emphasis on bad news.

Rising subscription and newsstand prices have not undermined the conviction of 85 percent of those polled that newspapers are ''one of the biggest bargains'' today. But the bargain would be more appreciated if ''the ink didn't come off on my hands'' (55 percent). (More than 55 percent of newspaper editors feel that way at the end of the day; so do their laundries.)

So much for the survey's picture of the changing reader. Now, back to those two questions: Could six years make such a difference - from Me Generation to Just-the-Facts Generation? And, if so, how?

It's tempting to say that if the American public has grown up this much in just six years, the Republic should be not only mature but several decades past Utopia by now.

Beyond that, many people will have an empirical doubt. To put it starkly: If this is such a careful, random sampling of the public, why haven't I and all my acquaintances gone through such a change? Populus Americanus is the most surveyed public in the history of the world, but somehow the pollsters never seem to phone anyone you know.

There are several answers to these suspicions. Some of them are found in the results reported by the respected Ruth Clark and her associates, who did the survey. (Their methodology was impeccable. First, they arranged lengthy ''focus group'' discussions among cross-sections of readers of different types of papers in six regions of the United States. Then they framed questions based on the concerns and wants of these groups, and did scientific random-sample phone interviews with 1,202 respondents last December and January.)

One broad conclusion Clark and company reached was that as quickly as papers changed to ''soft news'' in response to the 1978 survey, the readers changed again. The alleged narcissists of the Me Generation suddenly wanted more ''hard news'' because recession, inflation, unemployment, worry about inability to compete in world markets, and nuclear war talk have, says Clark, ''transformed what used to be a narrowly self-involved audience into a far more sophisticated cosmopolitan group.''

In other words, Narcissus was sobered up in six years and became Atlas - or perhaps, in daily news terms, Sisyphus.

But, wait a minute. In 1978, hadn't the famous Me Generation just been through stagflation, Vietnam, Watergate, two recessions only slightly less jarring than the '81-'83 version, a jolting oil shock, worries about prestige abroad, and resurgence of the nuclear movement - all without losing its compass or its flywheel?

And, for that matter, hasn't the American public for decades kept its backbone despite toying with know-nothingism, roaring-'20s hedonism, isolationism, McCarthyism, Red Guard protest, drug culture, and other excesses?

The Clark survey suggests one answer when it reports encouragingly that American youth, ''18- to 24-year-olds, are exhibiting a greater sense of urgency about keeping up with the news than do the 'baby boomers,' those 25 to 34 years of age.''

This reinforces the sociologists' view of a new generation devoted to finding the right career ladder, infused with entrepreneurial spirit, and envisioning the advent of a data-bank, new-industries civilization.

For such a young reader there would be no need to change from advice to facts in six years. He/she would hit the resume market already crying ''Just give me the facts and I'll cope.''

But, let's face the facts ourselves. Readers, viewers, consumers were never as narcissistic overall as pop-psych preachers tried to make us think Americans were in the '70s. Nor are readers today quite so ready to use newspapers and magazines as mere fact banks, even if they do seek more ''hard'' information.

It's far more likely that the public of the '80s wants expertise in all fields of interest to it. Expertise implies writers who are authorities in their fields selecting from the flood of facts just that factual information and meaning that provide useful guidance. Armed with that, readers will cope.

And that complaint about too much bad news?

If one judges from mail, conversation, and surveys, most readers instinctively know that a better world and personal progress require hard work. But their practical experience tells them that the world and its people are better than their TV screen and headlines often indicate.

The sensationalism cited by readers in the Clark survey is destructive news. Facts and expertise are neutral; used by readers they become constructive. That's almost certainly what readers have wanted in every decade.Earl W. Foell is editor in chief of The Christian Science Monitor.

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