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Editor Sees Ways to Gain Readers


LIFE is sweet for Burl Osborne. The paper he edits, the Dallas Morning News, is prospering financially and journalistically. He is president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) and a member of the Pulitzer prize board.

He is in New York for this year's round of Pulitzer decision-making, a task that he says is ``probably the most enjoyable thing that I do.'' He says this over breakfast at his hotel, a Fifth Avenue hostelry where orange juice costs almost $5. Mr. Osborne is eating light this morning, just an order of whole wheat toast. That's a mere $3.50.

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But life for the newspaper industry isn't luxurious. Readership has been declining for decades; people are reading fewer papers and spending less time reading papers they do buy. The rise of competing media like television and computer networks, as well as a fall in the plain old practice of reading, has dimmed the future.

For its convention this week in Boston, ASNE has commissioned a study of why people read or don't read newspapers, and what they want from them. Osborne, in editing the Dallas Morning News, has studied and surveyed what his readers and would-be readers want and how they live. In essence, he says, editors need to make their product more ``valuable.''

When people say they don't have time to read a paper, Osborne says, ``what they're really saying is, `I've got a limited amount of time ... and reading your paper is not as important as some other things.'

``We have become relatively less important than some of the other things they can do. I think we have to regain that importance.''

The ASNE survey says about half of the adults in the United States are loyal readers of daily newspapers. Of the remaining half, about a quarter are sometime newspaper readers who could become loyal subscribers. The problem is that this quarter of the adult population comprises two separate groups with different needs and desires.

One group, ``at risk'' readers, lead busy, harried lives, and aren't terribly fond of newspapers. The want papers to be less cumbersome and more accessible, and to provide useful information about living. They also want more local coverage. The survey suggests these readers would like to see newspapers become a ``coping medium'' instead of an information medium.

The survey labels the other group ``potential'' readers - people who want to know about current events, but aren't sure that newsprint is the best place to look for news. They are also young and busy, but more in control of their lives, and have broader, more cosmopolitan interests. Pleasing these people, says the survey, will mean making newspapers into a ``knowledge medium.''

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Osborne hopes that newspapers won't have to decide between these two options, ``that newspapers, done well, [will] provide some of both of those things.'' He also points out that national prescriptions for change don't take into account the peculiarities of each newspaper market.

These last two items concern the tone of the newspaper, the element of a paper's identity that Osborne says is ``most important.'' For a morning paper especially, Osborne says, ``You have to consider yourself a little bit like a member of the family.''

Better, more interesting writing seems to be in demand. Researchers asked people what changes they'd like to see in newspapers. ``More things that are entertaining to read,'' ``more in-depth stories that go beyond headlines or summaries,'' and ``more stories that focus on people rather than events,'' were three of the most popular requests.

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