Newspapers' thin gruel

December 10, 1993|By Eugene L. Roberts Jr.

MY first newspaper job was with the Goldsboro News-Argus, which is, for the ill-informed, the leading newspaper in Wayne County, N.C. It then had a circulation of 9,000. I wrote its farm column, "Rambling in Rural Wayne." Farmers summoned me to the scene whenever there was a significant farming event.

I wrote, for example, about the first farmer of the season to transplant tobacco plants from the seed bed to the field and about the season's first cotton blossom. I clucked over farmers' wives who made the county's best strawberry preserves. I wrote of volatile tobacco prices, of hailstorms and drought. I once wrote about a sweet potato that looked like Gen. Charles de Gaulle.

Because I was linked closely to events that were important to farm families, I and what I wrote became memorable to readers in a way that I never was, before or since.

I was reminded vividly of this more than a decade after I left the News-Argus and the "Rambling in Rural Wayne" column. It was in 1968 during the Tet offensive, when I was a war correspondent for the New York Times in Vietnam.

I heard vague reports of trouble in Hue. I made my way there by truck and helicopter and found that the Marines were surrounded and held only two blocks of the city. It took about 10 days for the Marines to get 10 blocks or so from their headquarters compound. When they did, they found several American advisers. I heard about the survivors and went to interview them.

"My name is Gene Roberts," I said. "I'm with the New York Times. I've come to get your story." Out of the darkness came a voice, and it said; "Hey, did you ever write the 'Rambling in Rural Wayne' column for the Goldsboro News Argus?"

I learned valuable lessons from the News-Argus and my tobacco farmer readers. They can laugh with you at the Charles de Gaulle sweet potato stories, but they expect depth when stories arise ++ that are important to them.

I learned that if tobacco prices were going up or down, there was no limit to their demand for detail.

I wish some of today's publishing executives had been out in the tobacco rows with me. They would have learned that formula and slickness cannot substitute for substantive news coverage.

Publishers have forgotten that it was the most substantive newspaper that became dominant in one competitive town after another; in New York, for example, and Philadelphia, Boston, Washington, Chicago, Dallas and Miami. Today, as competition diminishes and disappears, many newspapers seem to be in a race to see which can be the most shortsighted and superficial. We are relying too much far too much on weather maps, charts, graphs, briefs and color.

If we had looked upon these devices as nothing more, or less, than desirable improvements, then our papers would have been all the richer for the additions. But in far too many newspapers, we introduced these devices while slashing newsroom budgets and news holes. The result, all too often, has been that instead of becoming additions to news coverage, the devices have become substitutes for news coverage. And this, in a word, is folly.

We, of course, introduced many of the devices in order to reach out to marginal readers and non-readers. This was good. But when we started cutting back on substance, we put serious, devoted readers at risk by becoming less essential to them. And this was, and is, a very bad trade-off. I think, quite simply, that we are imperiling newspapers in the name of saving them.

Not only is this trend weakening our hold on the most loyal readers; it is causing long-term confusion and instability on our staffs, which further threatens our readership.

Recently, I talked to a newspaper consultant who estimated that he had given advice to more than 100 newsrooms in the past two years. The consultant found a common problem at almost every paper. The mid-level tier of editors seemed traumatized.

The problem? Lack of resources. Eighteen months ago, Susumu Shimoyama came here from Japan to study investigative reporting. His plan was to seek out some of the country's best investigative reporters and do a paper on how they practiced their craft. But except at a bare handful of papers, he found it difficult to find reporters who were spending time on projects.

"I interviewed quite a number of investigative reporters in this country for this project," he wrote later. "There was one common word with which some of them described themselves. . . . That was 'dinosaur.' "

Whether or not investigative reporting is threatened with extinction, it is, without question, seriously battered. So are many other forms of substantive reporting, including steady and persistent coverage of news beats and subject areas.

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