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Toward a New Role For Newspapers

POLITICAL and economic change of historical proportions, driven in many ways by the revolution in communications technology, is sweeping the world, affecting virtually every institution of social organization. For the newspaper business in the United States this period of change comes at time of concern about the vitality of the institution. Slow growth in circulation with attendant loss of advertising appeal are constant. Corporatization of the industry has introduced new and sometimes conflicting goals and values into the system. Newer forms of competition made possible by computers, telecommunications systems, and facsimile machines compound continuing competition from electronic communications news systems. Younger generations have been all but written off as serious newspaper readers.

But periods of great change create opportunities. One of the greatest opportunities facing newspaper journalists is the chance to reexamine the basic notion of news itself - what information and which events in a changing world should be considered ``newsworthy'' and thus useful to a wide audience.

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In fits and starts, newspaper journalists for the last 30 years have been making adjustments in what they consider news in response to the impact of television. Once it became clear that most people got their news first from radio or television, then understanding the news became the focus of newspapers' news judgments and presentation. Stories began to be developed and reported in more depth. Analytical pieces explaining why things happen or what they might mean joined straight ``objective'' news on the front page. The page opposite the editorial page was opened up to the views of people outside the newspaper. Special interest sections for life style, fashion, science, and food were created to keep advertising support. Visual changes were made: designed pages, bold colors, more pictures and graphics.

While these and other changes have created a far different look for newspapers, the idea of what makes news has essentially remained the same: crime, disaster, conflict, oddity, excitement, and famous people. Presented in the inverted pyramid style which emphasizes the novelty and the drama inherent in the information, these subjects provide most of the daily news reports. They were the magic ingredients which created the penny press in 19th century America, the country's first newspapers of mass circulation free of political party control. With minor variations they continue to determine the news reports of newspapers over 150 years later.

Meanwhile the fax machine, the computer, cassette recorders, and communications satellites have radically altered the numbers and forms of presenting news and the audience receiving the news. Twenty-four-hour radio and television news broadcasts reach worldwide with almost instantaneous reports of news: thousands of print publications designed for special interests have been created; newspapers with national, even international, circulation have been created; facsimile newspapers can be sent worldwide over the telephone. This proliferation of voices combined with the 19th century notion of what makes news has created a modern Babel - endless and overlapping reports of ominous events over which the audience has little or no control.

The unexpected and unintended result, discovered in study after study, is that newspaper readers are tuning out the message. A recent study done for Times-Mirror Company (publisher of the Los Angeles Times) has measured this and called it ``an age of indifference'' among newspaper readers. But another interpretation of their data is possible if the 19th century context within which news is determined is taken into consideration. It is possible the study is not so much measuring the ``indifference'' of readers as it is measuring their reactions to ``news of another age.''

The increasing tempo and pressure of daily life generated as technology speeds up all forms of activity offers the possibility of a new daily journalism designed to help readers understand the community and world in which they live. Readers would be given a context that provides insights to help them cope with and control the forces affecting them.

Examination of daily coverage of a single subject like education can serve as an example. Our system of education fundamentally affects our progress as individuals and as a society. Young people who do not now read newspapers spend most of their days inside this institution. Cries of despair for its effectiveness and concern for its future are heard everywhere.

Yet most newspapers cover this subject with a single reporter - two at most - and most of their reporting focuses on the school board or the superintendent's office, concentrating on the politics of public education. The average paper will not publish stories from those reporters on a daily basis. The same newspapers will have a full-time editor and a staff of reporters covering the athletic programs in the same schools. These newspapers will publish several stories every day in a special section of the paper on these activities.

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They do this because the rules of what makes news determined long ago, in a less complex time, that covering the power of the superintendent's office and the conflict of school board politics was news and that the drama inherent in the competition of sporting events was news. What goes on daily in the classroom was not news.

In the intervening years, by incremental steps, schools have become the key health, education, and welfare system in our communities. What does or does not go on inside classrooms has had an enormous impact on our lives, our communities, our country.

A reexamination of the news value inherent in the educational system in light of a changed world might find this institution worth more coverage. That might, in turn, attract new young readers because it deals with a subject vital to their interests. That coverage might also highlight possibilities and problems within the system before they become critical and thus fulfill a fundamental responsibility of journalism. Importantly, such a commitment might provide a balance for the current focus of education reporting on the political conflict, a focus that contributes to the politicization of education as a whole.

Such possibilities for redefining news are almost without end. Consider subject areas such as consumer affairs and religion, institutions such as banking and insurance, concepts such as personal achievement and institutional performance. Systematic review of conventional assumptions about what makes the news - as opposed to continued concentration on how to present the news more attractively - could generate a news report which appeals to a wider audience of readers, including younger readers.

Guided by a concern for the educational and public responsibility required of serious journalism, such an examination could produce a newspaper that is a vehicle for understanding - that imposes some order upon the chaos of experience. The result: a journal that helps self-governing people understand the forces affecting their lives and the issues confronting their communities in a manner which allows them to guide those forces.

Next year will be 200 years since adoption of the Bill of Rights, containing a phrase to protect the press from government interference so it could perform just such a role. A fitting observance of the anniversary of this unparalleled press freedom might be an examination of whether our newspapers today serve the intent and justifies the protection offered in that document. It might even be good business.

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