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THE NATION

Newspaper editors look on the bright side

July 21, 2008|James Rainey | Times Staff Writer

Despite declines in revenue and repeated staff reductions, most American newspaper editors remain optimistic that their publications will regain their footing by shifting news to online editions and by employing innovations like video and computer-assisted reporting, a study has found.

More than half of the 259 editors surveyed rated the overall quality of their papers as better now compared with three years ago, with a majority saying the quality of writing and the depth of reporting had improved, according to "The Changing Newsroom."

But the survey by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism -- believed to be the most comprehensive of an embattled industry -- also found that "more is disappearing than is being added" in American newspapers. Foreign and national news coverage, in particular, have suffered.

Newspapers have faced unprecedented challenges in recent years as readers and advertisers shift to other outlets, mostly on the Internet. Many newspapers have more readers today than ever as Web readership soars, but online ads bring in only a fraction of the revenue that print ads -- which are on the decline -- generate.

The challenge "is to find a way to monetize the rapid growth of Web readership before newsroom staff cuts so weaken newspapers that their competitive advantage disappears," the Washington-based think tank concluded.

The urgency of the situation has been dramatized in recent weeks by cutbacks at some of the nation's most prestigious papers, including the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. The Times is eliminating 150 editorial positions from its print and Web staff of roughly 876 people.

And 85% of newspapers with circulations over 100,000 have reduced their staffing levels in the last three years.

The cuts have most papers focusing closer to home -- 62% said they were devoting more space to community news and about half said they had added more state and local news.

Almost all newsroom executives at larger papers said they considered it essential to maintain investigative reporting -- a feature that sets them apart from blogs and other new media sources. Those efforts have benefited from the proliferation of databases, which allow newspapers to examine neighborhood crime statistics and restaurant closures.

Editors said they had seen gains in other areas as well: the ability to post stories online quickly and to update them frequently, particularly during breaking stories such as fires and tornadoes. The constant demands of the Web have pumped added pressures as well as vitality into newsrooms, executives said.

The new era includes an expanded interaction between journalists and the communities they serve. In a few cases, papers have invited readers to help with reporting, as when the News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., asked readers to help it get to the bottom of a sharp rise in property assessments. Within 24 hours, the paper received a never-released audit that helped make the story.

Such gains, however, cannot disguise the losses that have come with declining ad revenue. Nearly two-thirds of the papers surveyed have cut back on international news, with once-proud foreign staffs at papers like the Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun and Newsday of New York now shuttered.

Half of the papers surveyed had reduced their coverage of the U.S., and more than one-third had slashed business news. Science pages have become a rarity.

"In effect, America's newspapers are narrowing their reach and their ambitions and becoming niche reads," said the study, compiled by Tyler Marshall, a former foreign affairs reporter who left the Los Angeles Times in a buyout.

Newsroom executives said their greatest concern was over the loss of older, and often more highly paid, journalists who took with them the institutional memory, wisdom and sense of mission that formed the backbone of the best papers.

One newsroom editor who was asked what had been lost said simply: "The concept of who and what we are."

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james.rainey@latimes.com

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