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The newspaper business

When Bill Kovach was eased out of his position as editor of the Atlanta Constitution and the Atlanta Journal on Nov. 4, some thought he had it coming. Granted that those once-great city newspapers had for years been in the doldrums. Granted that Mr. Kovach, who went to Atlanta from the New York Times less than two years before, let loose some hard-hitting series on issues such as discriminatory lending practices by Atlanta banks. Granted that he put together wall-to-wall coverage of last summer's Democratic convention that caught the eye of hundreds of visiting journalists. Granted that the Constitution won its first Pulitzer in two decades, for the political cartoons of Doug Marlette (a prize shared with the Charlotte Observer, where Mr. Marlette had previously worked).

All those things might have ensured success a couple of decades ago, when an editor-as-literateur could hire the staff, assign the stories, and still find time to red-pencil copy with his or her own hand. Today's editors face other demands. They still need the nose for news and the passion for prose. But they must also be part entrepreneur and part politician. They've got to be savvy about financial matters - especially their own paper's bottom line. They must be able to build coalitions and forge consensus. They must know when and how to attack the fraudulent and defend the weak without losing either their support or their independence.

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They must perform, in other words, a journalistic high-wire act - always on display, sometimes in strong gales, and occasionally without a net.

Stemming gales and providing the net is the job of a publisher - who, if he or she trusts the editor, will help fend off the rage of those in the community whose toes are trampled and who will, if needed, catch an editor who stumbles. In Atlanta, there were apparently lots of trampled toes - belonging to the banks, the Coca-Cola empire, the Georgia Power Company - and some stumbling. What was missing, apparently, was trust - a crucial ingredient of the editor-publisher relation. So when Cox Newspapers, Kovach's employer, found a reason to make a change, change came.

Blame? There's plenty to go around. The more interesting question is, what does this all mean?

Newspapers are entering a curious period. Where once they competed among themselves, they now compete with television. But commercial television, except for some rare and wonderful exceptions, exists (as its insiders freely admit) as an advertising medium, intended primarily to deliver viewers to advertisers rather than programs to viewers. Newspapers, while facing similar pressures to be first and foremost an advertising medium, manage to keep their focus on delivering the news.

These days, however, when comparisons with TV are made so constantly, the pressure is intensifying. Publishers sometimes buckle to it - and editors who stand firm risk losing advertising linage. History suggests that the linage returns if the paper really is good. But if history is unheeded, editors sometimes find themselves out in the cold.

That appears to be what happened to Kovach. His editorial integrity seems to have stood firm. His paper seems to have bent.

And that cuts to the heart of the issue. Editorial independence is the lifeblood of American democracy. The US doesn't have a parliamentary democracy, where a prime minister faces a weekly grilling from the loyal opposition. The only grilling the administration gets - albeit too infrequently and too politely - comes from the press. To the press, then, falls the role of loyal opposition. Not only is it the privilege of newspapers to ask pointed questions. It's also their duty.

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Does that give journalists the right to ask pointed questions of hometown businesses? Some say no - that a local paper should cheerlead for the community, emphasizing the good and underplaying the bad. Some say yes - that a paper cannot fulfill its loyal-opposition role if, probing only the public sector, it leaves alone the private-sector arenas on which political support depends.

In the long run, the nation is best served by asking, rather than by stifling, questions. If fewer questions are now to be asked in Atlanta, that will send up a bright red flag. ``Warning,'' it will read, ``falling editorial integrity: Please drive carefully.''

A Monday column

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