Extra! Extra! Back to the future of newspapers

August 28, 2005|By C. Fraser Smith

Music, art and philosophy,

It's all right here for you to see.

50 cents is all you pay,

So get your Daily here today.

THE CHAUTAUQUAN (N.Y.) Daily, that is, serious-minded, going strong and breaking even financially.

Oh, and basking in the affection of its readers! Is this journalistic heaven, a product that's good for the reader and good for the community? Probably - and probably not possible elsewhere in this complex world.

But maybe The Chautauquan Daily represents, at age 132, a niche paper for today and tomorrow. Visitors to Chautauqua, a shrine to intellectual and spiritual exchange, may buy The New York Times in the bookstore, but they don't fail to grab the Daily from one of the young street vendors:

The Chautauquan Daily is what I do,

So buy a paper and help me through.

Maybe the buyers are swept away by the jingles, by the image of urchin sellers, cloth sack slung over a shoulder. Maybe they do want to help Will Pihl, 12, a hawker from nearby Mayville. But what they absolutely do want is the newspaper.

Why? It's ritual. It's tradition. It's a necessity. It gives you what you want, a schedule of the day's events, profiles of the Chautauqua Institution's awesome array of daily speakers and, later, comprehensive presentations of what those speakers said in the institution's 5,000-seat amphitheater.

In a media world virtually atomized by electronic devices, a world taken over by commentators and gossips of every stripe, the Daily gives you well-grounded, comprehensive coverage of ideas you care about at considerable length.

The newspaper's editor, Linda Berrey, says the Daily's mission has two simple parts: to preview every day's lecture and performance schedule and to provide a daily, archival history of Chautauqua. You don't get everything, of course. You don't get opinion. You don't get man- or woman-in-the-street reports. You get accounts of lectures from experts whose messages are presented with fidelity.

In the past, speakers have included Thurgood Marshall, who spoke when he was the lead attorney for the NAACP. This year's lineup included Geoffrey Kemp, a Middle East expert at the Nixon Center in Washington, and Kanan Makiya, a journalist, lecturer at Brandeis University and adviser to drafters of the Iraqi constitution.

What you get from the Daily may well be the past and the future of journalism at its no-frills, essential best. You get a publication carefully attuned to the needs of its audience.

With newspapers struggling to maintain financial equilibrium, the nation may be receptive to smaller publications serving smaller specialty audiences that want thoughtful coverage of issues that general circulation newspapers have been unable to provide because their mission is more expansive.

Would advertisers be drawn to smart readers looking for coverage of issues not adequately dealt with by the major daily? Would the cultural institutions of a city such as Baltimore advertise in a product that introduced their programs with care and understanding? Could the established dailies learn something from The Chautauquan Daily?

Analysts bemoan the withering away of Americans who read. It's a copout. Many Americans do read, want to read, live to read - and would read newspapers if "the media" gave them more of what they want. They're still going to need the big papers.

The Daily, for example, doesn't do crime, or international news. There's no crime in Chautauqua, actually, so there's no journalistic breakdown. International news is there in the talks.

The Daily makes it financially because it operates in a unique environment. It also has no major distribution expenses and no wire services, and it doesn't pay its staff much, offering invaluable experience in exchange for money. Many of its reporters are students.

"I tell them the Daily gets read cover to cover. You have to be alert. People are reading every word," Ms. Berrey says. She was a copy editor at the Daily for years under a woman whose father was a small-town newspaperman. "She was very grounded in what a local paper should be," she says.

All good newspapers, we might say with apologies to Tip O'Neill, are (or should be) grounded and local.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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