What's really news these days?

January 09, 1996|By Richard Reeves

SAN FRANCISCO This was the lead story last Thursday morning in the most influential newspaper in the country, the New York Times: "House Lawmakers Reject Dole Plan to Reopen Offices." In the country's most popular paper, USA Today, the line across the top of Page One said: "House: Keep gov't closed."

There is no doubt that the struggle between President Clinton and the Congress over budgets and deficits is a great story by any traditional journalistic standard. It is important stuff, with interesting characters playing politics for high stakes.

It is, barring war, storm and tragedy, the same story that has led the papers for the past hundred years: What is happening in government; what's up in politics. How many people do you think read the story from top to bottom in either paper if anyone read it at all? Who cares?

Interestingly, the other two stories in the top righthand corner of the Times were science stories: " '95 the Hottest Year on Record as the Global Trend Keeps Up" and "Signal to Stop Eating Is

Found."

It seems that we really may be ruining our planet with our unrestrained appetite for burning fossil fuels. And, scientists think they may have found the protein in the brain that is supposed to stop us from ruining ourselves in gluttony.

In the long run, the science stories are more important than what Newt Gingrich has to say. Playing up those stories also could be taken as a sign that the Times understands that government (and politics) are just not as important as they used to be. Life on the planet is simply changing faster than government and journalism.

Journalism as we knew it was born and grew as a record of "public" affairs, not ignoring affairs of commerce and science and such, but usually seeing them and reporting on them through the prism of government and politics.

That's what newspapers were about. Print-trained journalists also shaped and dominated the first generations of radio and television news-gathering and broadcasting.

Now newspapers, more often than not, are reporting on events their readers already are aware of, having heard or seen something about them during 24-hour news days. Editors have had to turn to more analysis and features while continuing to concentrate on old-style public affairs coverage. Even the nightly news is old news now.

In many ways, big-time journalism is irrelevant to many of the important decision-makers of these new times. More and more people demand and are getting focused news, from small-business or trade-oriented news-gathering services. There are print and electronic newsletters covering industries or doings that might not rate a comma in a morning paper.

Many corporations and government agencies create their own newspapers, with editors who scan other sources and clipping services to provide a narrow information product that is printed or photocopied in the early morning hours each day and then plopped on the desks of busy folk before they arrive at their offices. And now, there are those mysterious Web sites, a mystery only to those not yet able or willing to find them.

I could make a great deal of money if I knew how all this will end. But of course I don't, and it won't.

Old-fashioned journalism promoted and elevated a professional elite of political reporters. Being assigned to cover business or science or health or the culture itself was considered something close to punishment. To a large degree that has changed; today, business or health correspondents are expected to have enough education to know what they're talking about.

Perhaps it is already too late for general-interest journalism to compete with all the new specialized media, focused in both subject and circulation. The first to go (or become history) could be the newsmagazines, Time and Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, which owe their existence to the inadequacies of local newspapers before World War II.

That was a long time ago, in simpler days when the New York Times could define itself as offering "All the News That's Fit to Print." Nobody can claim that anymore. Understand all the news? Nobody can even find it all these days or wants to. Just tell me all I need to know this morning.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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