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Experiment at California Paper May Redefine Journalism for the '90s

WHEN reporter Jennifer Lowe goes looking for stories, it isn't in the usual haunts. She may spend time at a Saks Fifth Avenue store or roam the halls of one of Orange County's seemingly ubiquitous shopping malls. Ms. Lowe is the Orange County Register's, and perhaps the nation's, first fulltime shopping mall reporter. She is also an outgrowth of an unusual experiment in '90s-style journalism under way at what has been one of America's most successful suburban newspapers.

Impelled by the belief that newspapers have to change with the times or go unread, top editors at the Register have been instituting a series of editorial changes in recent months that turn some journalistic canons on their heads.

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They have redefined old news beats, created a few new ones, and tried to knock down the walls that usually exist between editorial departments. In the process, they have energized some reporters on staff, worried others, and drawn outside ribbing that another southern California institution has gone New Age.

The changes inside the Register's modern, buff-tone building here come at a time when newspapers across the country are looking for ways to attract subscribers in an era of stagnant readership and growing competition from television.

They also come at a time when the Register is locked in one of the fiercest suburban newspaper wars in the country, with the monolithic and encroaching Los Angeles Times.

`Compel them to read'

``It's my belief that it is no longer an automatic that people are going to rely on newspapers,'' says N. Christian Anderson, editor of the Register and the driving force behind the changes. ``What we have to do is compel them to read the newspaper, and that means giving them something they can't get anywhere else in a direct, meaningful way.''

Green eyeshades vanished from newspapers a long time ago; now the Register has done away with the people who used to wear them. On the carpeted third-floor newsroom here, you won't find metropolitan or business editors or, for that matter, traditional news or feature departments.

Conventional editors have been replaced by a series of ``topic'' editors, overseeing such areas as ``getting around,'' ``learning,'' ``cities,'' and ``southern California culture.'' Reporters are assigned to editors by subject rather than section. Thus the ``planes, trains, and buses'' writer and ``car culture'' writer report to the ``getting around'' editor.

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The idea, in part, was to avoid duplication: The paper used to have three people covering health and medicine, each writing for different sections. Now they all report to one person.

At the same time, editors want different stories to run in different parts of the paper - what Mr. Anderson calls a ``newspaper without walls.'' Because the topic editors are not responsible for putting out specific sections (that falls to another series of editors), they are, in theory, not as inclined to be territorial with their reporters, and reporters are not as inclined to think about writing for just one section.

Thus more travel stories now end up on Page 1 while the defense writer occasionally produces pieces for the ``Accent'' (feature) section.

``What we're trying to do is get reporters and editors to think in different terms - to have stories appear where they are most appropriate,'' says Richard Cheverton, managing editor for strategy and administration.

The paper has also rethought its ``beat'' system. Many of the traditional ones remain, such as courts and cops, though in some cases they have been recast in ways that a journalistic pioneer like H.L. Mencken wouldn't recognize.

New beats have been developed, staffed mainly by what used to be general assignment reporters. Among them: pets and hobbies, families and teens, friends and lovers, demographics, and, of course, malls.

``We tried to come up with beats that more reflected the way we live,'' says Anderson.

When editors first started to move forward with the changes, after a brainstorming session at a mountain retreat in February, many staffers were understandably upset. Some feared the paper would be covering parking structures more than corruption at city hall. Several moved over to the Los Angeles Times.

Since then, some of the emotionalism has died down. Several staffers say the changes aren't as dramatic as they thought. A few beat reporters have been moved back to general assignment.

``I see it more as old wine in new bottles rather than a revolution,'' says one reporter.

To some outsiders the changes have been subtle, too.

``It is kind of a newspaper with a new set of clothes,'' says a former Register staffer now with the Los Angeles Times.

Still, residues of concern remain. Reporters complain about a drift toward shorter stories, flashier graphics, and more emphasis on ``soft'' features. Three photographers recently resigned - in part, says one of them, because of recent changes.

``It's not correct that the newspaper has gone soft,'' says a reporter. ``But I perceive that it is softer than it used to be and that it is more interested in marketing itself than in practicing journalism.''

Some staffers clearly like the flexibility of being able to write for different parts of the paper. Mall reporter Lowe, who used to write for features, finds many of her stories now appearing on the business page.

Covering the local culture

She doesn't think covering malls is a frivolous exercise. The assignment does produce the offbeat, such as the chain of swimwear stores whose clerks work in bathing suits. But in a county known more for its malls than museums, it also a part of the culture that can't be ignored.

``Do you know anyone who doesn't shop?'' she asks.

Editor Anderson says the system, which is still evolving, isn't perfection but neither is it the ``total doom and gloom'' that some had predicted.

``It may not be capital `J' journalism by ASNE [American Society of Newspaper Editors] standards or by somebody else's standards,'' he says. ``But to our customers it is news and information they believe they want to have.''

Readers, of course, will be the final arbiters on that. For years, the Register has been gaining market share in affluent and growing Orange County, holding the Los Angeles Times's plans of conquest at bay. It still holds a comfortable circulation lead (349,000 daily to 180,000 for the Orange County edition of the Times).

But the Times has been aggressively expanding its staff in the area and recently cut subscription prices.

``We expect the September circulation numbers to show a very big upswing, especially on Sunday,'' says Carol Stogsdill, editor of the Times's Orange County edition.

As if all these changes aren't enough, this month Freedom Newspapers Inc., owners of the Register, launched a 24-hour-a-day cable news program for Orange County. Although the operation has a separate staff, it draws on the resources of the Register. Among its competitors: A cable news venture that includes as a partner the Orange County edition of the Times.

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