Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Increasing National Coverage Is A No-Brainer, And, Yes, Newspapers Should Evaluate Attacks Against Them

This is the last of six blogs evaluating the principal recommendations of a New York Times panel that studied ways to improve the credibility of the newspaper.

I think the last two recommendations, which I'll discuss today, are in many respects the easiest to endorse -- to increase coverage of middle America, rural areas and religion, and to establish a system for evaluating public attacks on the NYT (and other papers) with a view toward determining whether and how to respond.

The NYT has wisely in recent years expanded its national circulation, thereby slowly increasing its total circulation at a time when many other papers have lost readers. It should go without saying that if a paper is going to become a national one and be delivered daily in wide areas, it is going to have to improve coverage far and wide.

The L.A. Times, on the other hand, by cutting back on national circulation has been losing circulation overall fairly drastically, since newspaper reading has become less popular with the population as a whole, and, to be successful, the paper must appeal to a more widely-scattered elite.. Those who care for the future of the paper are worried. For that matter, as a part of cost cutting, the L.A. Times has even cut back to some extent on circulation in other parts of the state and is failing to cover the entire state of California. I believe and have written repeatedly that this is a bad mistake. The paper has become too Hollywood-oriented. It is filled with the movies and weak on coverage outside Southern California. It's not, in short, the wideranging paper it once was. Even as the New York Times extends its coverage.

The implication of the NYT panel's recommendation about increasing coverage of middle America, rural areas and religion is that that paper will pay more attention to areas and segments of the population that provided the majority for the victories of George W. Bush in the 2000 and 2004 elections.

To the extent that this would increase general understanding of the forces at work in assembling the democratic majority in the country, I think it's a good idea, although I tend to think the Democrats may make something of a comeback against the Republicans in the 2006 midterm elections, unless there's a renewal of terrorist attacks within the U.S. borders.

In any case, such increases in coverage should not be done to win more neocon readership, but simply because it's the right course to follow for any national newspaper.

It is, meanwhile, apparent, that the mainstream press is living through controversial times, and it's not a bad thing to carefully evaluate the criticism, although I caution against undue panic about criticism. The press must go ahead and do what it has to do, and that means covering liberals as well as conservatives, foreign affairs, stories both favorable to and unfavorable to the United States.

The job in journalism is to tell the readers what is happening without fear that news need be slanted to please public opinion. But when papers are criticized, oftentimes they should respond when necessary to explain what they are doing and why.

The danger, with all steps taken to improve credibility is that there is sometimes a tendency to cater too much to the mob. We need not do that to stay in business, but, as always, we have to take due precautions to report as accurately as we can.

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