Sorting Out the Future of News

By Deborah Howell
Sunday, April 30, 2006

SEATTLE -- The American Society of Newspaper Editors gathers once a year, and this year editors are commiserating about budget cuts and dropping circulation and looking for ways to make their newspapers better and more attractive to readers.

The feeling of uncertainty is powerful. Editors know their trade is changing rapidly, but they wonder, as John Carroll, former editor of the Los Angeles Times, did: "Are newspaper editors really necessary?"

Or will Internet users just roam the Web, picking and choosing what they wish to know? Rick Rodriguez, editor of the Sacramento Bee and this year's president of ASNE, put it this way: "We can believe that we're on the path to irrelevancy . . . and that presses are the bones of dinosaurs." Or, he said, "We are in the best position in each of our communities . . . to prove skeptics dead wrong. No one else can do [journalism] as well as we can."

For all the naysayers about the newspaper business, two major players -- Gary Pruitt, chief executive of McClatchy Co., and Dean Singleton, CEO of MediaNews Group Inc. -- are bullish about ink on paper. They better be, because they are making huge investments to buy more.

McClatchy will be the second-largest owner of newspapers in the country after buying Knight Ridder, formerly No. 2, and Singleton is moving to buy some of the Knight Ridder papers that McClatchy didn't want, including four this week. McClatchy is a public company that will have to pay more attention to Wall Street than will MediaNews, which is privately owned. As Pruitt said, there is "no security unless we do well in the market."

Pruitt sees "great leverage" in owning newspapers and expanding online with news products delivered "24-7 . . . and when [readers] want." Singleton cautioned the editors about reporters writing more for each other and for prizes than for readers. He said readers want more information and entertainment news and fewer long series. He added, "The whole story is local. Iraq is not as important as local."

Editors create newspapers, hope readers like them and deliver them mostly in the morning. And is their version of quality what readers want? At The Post, that's a question asked every day in a newsroom covering local news -- and Iraq.

Pruitt said, "We have to have the leading online local sites." Singleton pointed out perhaps the biggest problem: "We're not paid for online news." Pruitt suggested that newspapers charge online for readers outside the paper's circulation area.

Newspaper stock analyst William Drewry, managing director and head of media at Credit Suisse Securities, told editors several times what they know but don't want to hear: Wall Street cares less about quality journalism than profits.

Even if newspapers change, will readers care about the changes? Two newspapers, the Dayton (Ohio) Daily News and the Hamilton Spectator in Ontario, have tried radical changes to appeal to readers. Dana Robbins, Spectator editor in chief, said 600 readers canceled the paper and, in a survey, 40 percent of readers said they hadn't noticed the changes.

One hit of the convention was a panel of mostly twentysomethings showing how they're changing journalism online. One wag in the audience said, "They don't make me feel so old as they make me feel stupid."

Ken Sands, online publisher of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., said newspapers have "to fly into the future and build the plane while it's in the air."

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