Calling the nation's newspapers "a privileged and lucrative industry," Ralph Nader yesterday called on citizen groups around the country to undertake extensive studies of their local newspapers "in an effort to make them more responsive to their communities."
At a press conference at the opening of the annual convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors here yesterday, Nader said he was making available a 90-page manual outlining actions private citizens can take to make their local newspapers "more accountable to the people they serve."
"There has been a need for active citizen scrutiny of press performance for many years now," says Nader. "No other industry has explicit constitutional protection against government regulation of their product. And no other industry has a local monopoly in 97.5 percent of the towns they operate in without any form of public review."
The manual to be released by Nader urges citizens groups to weigh the performance of local newspapers, and offers some criteria for such evaluation.
"It's difficult to set down any comprehensive or absolute guidelines for judging the daily press," said David Bollier, the Nader staffer who drafted the manual. "Newspapers obviously vary immensely in their size, readership and financial resources. Even so, it's vital that citizens have some sense of how well their paper could meet community needs."
The manual urges citizens groups to take account of how their local papers cover everything from local, national and international news to financial, consumer and sports topics. There also is a significant section on studying the manner in which newspapers choose to express their own opinions and the opinions of others, including outside columnists and readers.
The study recommends seeking an increase in dialogue between newspaper management and the community of its readers.
Specifically, the manual proposes that local newspapers set up or encourage in-house procedures to solicit readers' responses, including reader ombudsmen, media critics, local news councils, expanded letters-to-the-editor columns and more opinion columns devoted to contributions from members of the community not associated with the paper.
The manual offers details of the inner workings of some newspapers, as a reference for those who wish to conduct the studies. For example, it describe the cooperative efforts of some small newspapers in one geographic area that have agreed to share a Washington-based reporter, and the subsequent costs incurred, in order to improve coverage of Washington news affecting that region.
It also details the operations of some local citizens press councils that systematically review the performance of news media. This manner of review is the subject of heated debate in the media as to whether it is a valid and effective form of criticism.
The report points out that some think "criticizing the press for what or how it reports is like the ancient practice of beheading the messengers who brought bad news." But it goes on to suggests:
"This power to decide what information to bring into vision is not the power of a simple messenger, but of a potent civic institution. As such, it deserves to be publicly examined and debated."