Wednesday, July 26, 2006

More Digests Or Summaries Is Not The Way To Improve Newspapers

--Written from Ashland, Oregon

Announcing the latest moves in his policy to downsize the New York Times, executive editor Bill Keller said that when the paper is narrowed by an inch and a half, it will lose about 5% of its news hole. But, Keller said, this will be compensated for by tighter editing and more news digests.

Yet one of the most important appeals of newspapers is that they provide detailed coverage of things TV news only covers in broad swipes, for a minute or two. More digests or summaries will only take away this advantage newspapers hold now.

I confess I do not like summaries at all. The L.A. Times decision to devote two pagesin the front section to summares is, I believe, a waste of space. I never even read Pages 2 and 3, despite the Times' attempt to make it more appealing by letting such talented writers as Andrew Malcolm write the summaries. The only summaries I even glance at are the very brief ones on Page 1.

It is far more satisfactory to leaf through a paper page by page, finding surprises as to what's in the news in the more lengthy articles. I have nothing against one-paragraph items for small news, but they are best left to the news pages.

Summary pages are, I believe, an attempt by editors to fool their readers into thinking they are doing their jobs. It allows them to reduce their coverage. It amounts to even greater reductions of the real news hole than Keller is admitting.

It's become fashionable to think of newspapers as not having much of a future. Yesterday, I had lunch here in Ashland, with my old friend and mentor (especially when he was managing editor of the Riverside Press-Enterprise), Al Perrin, now 86. Perrin used also to work as a copy editor for the L.A. Times, before he retired. During the course of our conversation, Perrin, who remains just as sharp as ever, intellectually, remarked sadly that the best time to be with newspapers was in the old days when we worked for them.

I don't quite agree with this. When one reads Yahoo these days on the Internet, there are frequently with big stories, like the present war in the Middle East, references to scores of stories from papers throughout the world, along with the ability to bring those stories to the screen and read what is being said elsewhere.

When one does this, you realize that most of the most perceptive comments in Journalism are not on TV at all, but still in newspapers or the weekly magazines, in short, in print media.

With imagination, with great coverage of fascinating stories, with some technological innovations, such as perhaps one day printing out of papers at home, thus cutting delivery costs, I think newspapers can survive for a long time. Even some advertising may come back, since TV systems like TIVO are allowing watchers to blot out or skim over ads, and the advertisers may figure out they have a better chance to be seen in newspapers.

But a good future for newspapers will take people who are more creative than Bill Keller or Dennis FitzSimons, CEO of the Tribune Ço. Such men are born to retreat. They think they can delay a day of reckoning for newspapers by cutting them back and laying off workers. I think this is shortsighted. People, I'm convinced, will still buy newspapers by the millions if only they believe in themselves, and remain papers of extensive record.

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