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Tough times for hard news, but good journalism goes on

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Ted Koppel is leaving ABC, and this puts the future of his "Nightline" program in doubt as well as underlining the changing character of TV news and journalism in general.

Mr. Koppel has been at ABC for 42 years, anchoring "Nightline" for 25 of them, creating a unique slot for serious network late-night journalism in a milieu where many late-night viewers get their "news" from the irreverent comic monologues of David Letterman and Jay Leno.

Where "Nightline" once captured a significant audience, its ratings are down as are the ratings for all TV network news programs. Their celebrity anchors are fading away. NBC's Tom Brokaw and CBS's Dan Rather are gone and ABC's Peter Jennings, whose contract is up for renegotiation this year, may not be far behind.

While the TV cameras do a splendid job of capturing the immediacy and drama of breaking news, they cannot offer the depth and analysis afforded by newspapers. As Walter Cronkite once pointed out, all the words in a 30-minute prime-time TV newscast (22 minutes without the ads) would fill just about half a page of The New York Times.

Koppel's "Nightline" was a noble stab at providing news junkies with more substantive TV fare. Its eclipse - perhaps even demise - would be sad indeed. Koppel deserves our thanks for preserving it, and its quality, for so long.

It is not an easy time for network TV journalists who are serious about their craft. They are awash in "news" programs focusing on celebrities and the entertainment industry, and "soft" magazine-type stories that are a far cry from the hard-news coverage that made the network news divisions what they once were.

With the explosive growth of cable TV, there has been serious fragmentation of the TV audience, offering competition for the networks not only from cable news channels like CNN and Fox, but from specialized channels vying for viewers' time with everything from salacious court stories to dog shows, poker tournaments, and how-to programs on bathroom tile-laying and scrapbookmaking.

In the face of all this, TV network executives have cut back on newsroom budgets, laying off well-known faces now popping up on CNN, and paring travel funds - particularly for foreign coverage.

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