News in 20th Century America; 23; Newspaper Better?
The following program was produced and recorded by the University of Michigan broadcasting service under a grant from the Educational Television and Radio Center in cooperation with the National Association of educational broadcasters news in 20th century America. A series of radio documents on the gathering writing and dissemination of news compiled from interviews with the men and women who make news their business. Think the newspaper not only better than they used to be. I think that this system of mergers consolidations that we talk about a lot of don't have a tendency to improve papers. In the first place they don't have to compete. Sol so often with so much. Force they don't have to devote so much energy to confrontation.
The voice is that of Dr. Frank Luther Mott dean emeritus of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Today you will hear a group of distinguished newspaper editors addressing themselves to the question Are newspapers better than ever. Today's edition of news in 20th century America. Now here is your host Ed Burroughs talked about think Stu's papers are better than they used to be. Not all individuals in the field of journalism agree with him and not all feel that the mergers he refers to are a healthy sign. Howard K. Smith for instance has spent 20 years abroad as a correspondent for newspapers news magazines and most recently the Columbia Broadcasting System. Upon his return to this country recently he remarked to us since I've come back I've been subscribing to a host of newspapers from all over the United States and I am appalled by the low quality of a great many of them. I think the Kansas
City Star which was once a great newspaper is for me almost useless it uses only Press Association copy it uses that in truncated. Quantity. And it has very little information on world events. Not a not a vast amount on important national events. Newspapers in my own hometown New Orleans the Times-Picayune I don't think does a good job at all. I noticed in covering the election campaigns that if you stay in you I was caught there for a while and had had a cold just in the hotel room is very hard to find out what the election what the candidates the presidential candidates were saying they would have short excerpts that's all the information is there the Press Association is or making it available. But a great many most of our newspapers are not printing it. Los Angeles is another example I think the Los Angeles press does a disservice to a tremendous city and a very important city it does not give the information. Now this makes the work that I happen to do at present all the more important. I think radio
is received nationwide and it's you find that in places where people are starved of information by their newspapers they tend to turn to the radio and that has been the case especially in a place like Los Angeles. Weather Radio is actually doing the job Mr Smith claims for it is a question discussed elsewhere in this series. But many editors could not agree with him that newspapers in general are deteriorating. Irving Flom of the Chicago Sun Times. If the background information is less than that or it's not just paper not getting any worse it might be getting better if it has one good reporter and before it had 10 generalized reporters it might be getting better. I'm just trying to tell you that you can't measure at least I've never been able to measure the quality of reporting from abroad by any standards such as how many comes to they don't vote or how many correspondents do they have. This means nothing.
A newspaper of 20 correspondents and newspaper can have and many respects what could be better than the one with 20 and they could have three times as many columns of space devoted to foreign news and not be doing as good a job as a newspaper that has a smaller quantity of quality enters into reporting and that's why I can't answer a question stated in these terms. And if it was a deteriorating Some are some are some are improving. There is a widespread feeling among people in the business and elsewhere that donors have something to do with accuracy and quality. If you write three columns a situation number. And it's written very dull and factually it seems
unemotional way and colorless way. Then he might say would this sound better then to have colorful writing. But this isn't necessarily so. We represented some of Howard K. Smith's views to Millburn a.. Chicago Sun-Times reporter his comments well are too many newspapers in the country to make any generalization. I if that was a if that statement is a broadside. If he means that the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of newspapers in the United States as a whole have deteriorated in the quality of their news present ation. Hey I don't agree there may be some papers that undoubtedly are some papers which have deteriorated. There are other papers which have greatly improved
as a whole. American newspapers I believe have improved. They give more space to foreign affairs today than they did in the past. They carry more definitive background explanatory pieces than they have in the past and overall they are less partisan. Then some of them have been in the past. They are more objective in most instances than they have been in the past. I do not see a deterioration of the American press as a whole. As I said I was ready to grant of course that maybe some individual papers have deteriorated. But many of them have improved. Mark Etheridge of the Louisville Courier-Journal has referred elsewhere to the newspaper industry as a sick interest rate. What do you agree with Mr.
Smith on the subject of deterioration. I think there's been some to Syria ration I think the disappearance of newspapers is a mark of deterioration to some extent. I think the economic squeeze has probably tightened up newspapers. I think what this man that you spoke about may have had in mind his consciousness the importance of foreign use less having lived in Europe. He came back with a European viewpoint and the consciousness of the importance of news about Europe. I think it's true that not a great many American newspapers carry foreign news to the extent of enlightening the readers about what's really going on in the world. A great many have superficial unfortunate news Bill business
itself is basically superficially that your product disappears at the end of the day. But not necessarily superficial. If you have say a newspaper like The New York Times I think the Baltimore Sun is a video in the field of correspondence. Good many of the Chicago Daily News we carry a good volume of foreign news. There are others that do it but it's right yeah in American newspapers that they carry a sufficient volume of foreign news at a time when most of our major question of foreign rather than domestic kind of Macdonald executive editor of The Des Moines Register Christiane could not agree with Smith nor it seems with the guarded criticism of Mr. Etheridge. It would seem to May.
That the reverse is true. The press as a hall was doing a better job of reporting both national and international news than it has done at any previous couriered. Discussing this subject in generalities we got into an area of that's where our hearts are difficult to make positive statements because there's as much difference in newspapers as there is in people that you've got a wide variety of competence and sorrow on us in the coverage of foreign news you've got extremes on both sides you've got a newspaper like The New York Times it's like the classic example. Which presents a very considerable amount of foreign news more than I
suspect the average reader is going to read and digest in a day's time and their newspaper is at the other extreme of Praed almost no foreign news at all. So it's rather difficult to generalize about the press as a whole. I know there's so much variety within the press but I do think that most readers. Put it though I think most readers in the United States do have available to them. Newspapers which do a very creditable job of reporting. National and international news. The same time I have I have a feeling that too many people are not reading. The serious news as far away as they should.
What's the reason for it I wish I knew. As it is the fault lies with the newspapers or with the Raiders or both are we not presenting the news and as readable if I shut my eyes we should. Are is that a spark of interest not there to begin with. I don't know what the answer to that as I think thoughtful auditors by a very considerable amount of time. Thinking about that and worrying about it. I'd like to say a considerable amount. More research done on that done I think has been done to date. I think that's a prime fail for research on the part of journalism departments communications departments around our and our colleges because I don't think they are. Public code as a whole. Is as well informed as it should be. At the same time I don't
think you can say that the information isn't available to them it is available to them and I and many instances at any rate. But. Why they aren't making better use of it. I don't know. One of the most editor of the Milwaukee Journal showed a particular concern for the quality of present day newspaper reporting. But I think there was a great drive towards uniformity of thinking. I don't think that I don't think there was enterprising one on many levels as they were at one time and there again it's partly a matter of cost they're up against a situation where the middle size paper cannot afford the highly trained staff. We can't. And to get going and getting from here to the business. So I think that I don't think they're deteriorating.
I think the quality of the news is is better than it was 20 years ago to go back to your time and I think that readers demand better news in the news is better there's been a drive in the AP French and through the efforts of the Associated Press managing editors have India management to improve news all the time it's being studied. I think you know about these continuing studies that are carried out by a large number of editors and the whole effort there has been to improve the news content of the wire. But. I'm not too optimistic about his having made any great strides but it has prevented a lot of something that would have thought none of that ever going to happen to me. I think there's a there's quite a trend towards taking handouts and so on that has come up in the last 20 or 20 years and has been paralleled by the growth of government I mean government have become so complex and that
he would have to have thousands of men to cover all the offices of Washington the tendency to take handouts produced stories from them as both economic interest to the matter of efficiency. I don't think that is good. There isn't enough digging behind to find a new. There has been a great change in the newspaper reporters out to over the years and I think that. People generally are getting the kind of papers they want I don't think there is but if they could be a number of editors have mentioned the economics of publishing as contributing to deterioration in newspapers where it exists. Frank Aldrin editor of the Memphis Commercial Appeal comments newsprint has skyrocketed and the employees are unionized for the most part and have run up
the going Waynes do what I think is going to be a law of diminishing where the law of diminishing returns is going to set in before and I want it certainly has for some of them. You've observed a number of murders that took place last year. Now there's another angle and that is that because of the cost of newsprint because of the exorbitant overtime rates and Manning restrictions on presses and that sort of thing that newspapers just cannot have the volume of news and the volume of pictures that they would like. I regard the mergers as a strengthening process however and I think we might as well acknowledge that there are going to be more in the years to come because. Short of a tremendous recession you never turn back wages or our prices. And I hope we don't have. I hope we don't have a
recession that's the hard way of doing. Reducing prices Oh I think we're going to continue the strengthening process now of course in the last ning. All newspapers process you're going to have fewer outlets for expression. That is one unfortunate thing. But if you look at circulation figures you'll see that way are one of the nation's newspapers today have in spite of their retardation of business last year the circulation continue to go ahead. It's all from a matter of coverage blanket coverage. We're doing very well in the matter of outlets. We're not doing too well. I am from the matter of individual coverage. The high cost of production and admittedly is keeping that
somewhat card to curtail. Doctor mocked Mr. Aldrin and others have mentioned mergers as an indication of economic problems within the newspaper industry whether mergers will help or hinder the trade is worth some further discussion. We mentioned the merger of the Chicago Sun Times and Daily News as typical to Harry Ashmore of the Arkansas Gazette. Well and it certainly had. A little bit shocking the one who dates back even as far as I do in this trade to think of Chicago as being in effect a two newspaper town only 2 ownerships to see the times disappear into the sun. And then the Chicago Daily News come under the management of the Sun Times or The Hearst papers disappear completely with only the remnant of that a limb by early American and that published by the Tribune. However again I think that the economy of our business is such that this more than anything
else is bringing about the reduction of newspapers. And when we say that we're getting fewer newspapers this of course is true. At the same time however we're getting a an expansion of the total communication media at an almost breathtaking rate. I'm not going to argue at this point although I'd be glad to talk about it whether television news which is a great new competitor that we in the Gutenberg movable type trade face. Has contributed enough to offset the absence of the demesne you ation of newspapers and number. I don't know yet. Radio is still there and an important factor and will continue to be what I am saying is that all these years when newspapers have become fewer the public is being subjected to an increasing number of words nevertheless flung at them and labeled as news and presented in some fashion. In any event I don't think that trend is going to be reversed for the simple economic reason that we are
fighting for the same advertising dollar and every time the other media cut into it the newspapers share shrinks and are a cost as you know it's an old story of increased astronomically year by year. Therefore it is not empire building by publishers but economic considerations that dictate your newspapers. Secondly I could say on the optimistic side that experience has demonstrated that this does not necessarily mean that the fewer newspapers are weaker or worse newspapers. As a matter of fact I would say that where there is a responsible ownership which has a stronger economic base they can do a better job than was being done before in some instances. I might say as a somewhat wry personal aside that I suspect the city of Little Rock would have been a great deal better off than the current crisis had there been a monopoly here. As it happens we are one of the last fully competitive cities of this size left in a country where we are morning and Sunday and we're up against an
afternoon Sunday newspaper which was in a sense fighting for its survival was economically weak and probably its decision to capitulate as it did was dictated in part by that. I suppose our policy would have been just about the same but I think it would have been a little bit easier if all the money had been going into one two instead of two. Dr. Frank Luther Mott whom you heard earlier adds this comment on mergers. I think that the critics of the past. I've been rather ill with writing giving so much attention to this matter murder and combinations trend that have very little effect on the distribution of reliable news we have that we have from so many sources and virtually no relation so far that I've seen to the real abuses of news happening in America.
It's size that increases the number of newspapers all of the operation economical which would be just about as hard to repeal as a schedule of titans in the Bay of Fundy irrelevant and immaterial says Dr. Mark. Does Mark Etheridge of the Louisville Courier-Journal agree are mergers good or bad for the newspaper industry. I don't know that you can say it's good or bad. What I say is it's inevitable. It is true that in a good many monopoly towns the merged newspapers are better newspapers then existed prior to mergers. I think that's true and for instance Atlanta I think it's true in Minneapolis I'm quite sure it's true here you know. So it's not a question of merging being good or bad I think the
inevitability of the thing that. Interest me they are 94 percent of the cities in the United States that now have monopoly situations. Ideally it would be better to have competitive situations. Ideally yes but I don't think anybody can claim with a great amount of news on television and radio that the public is not informed of what's going on. What it doesn't get in a great many situations is the opposite editorial stay and that you might have in a competitive situation. Kenneth McDonald of the Des Moines Register Tribune also defames this line of reasoning. This whole issue of so-called monopoly price set is has been discussed many many times.
I don't think it has. I don't think it has merit where they important a fact online process that some of the people who worry about it think it could have. I right away a basic point that it's desirable to have as many. Voices as possible. At the same time I. I think that the newspaper has to be already on station or any other instrument of communication has to be relatively strong if it's going to be free. And I don't see anything to indicate that. There's any lost freedom among fewer papers. There was a number of years ago when we had more newspapers. As a matter of fact I could I could cite arguments to show that. In some
cases the fewer newspapers are better newspapers because they're stronger. Another way of putting less would be less if you. If you were to make a last of the time best newspapers in the country. And if you were to make a list of the sime time on the side of what you consider the town porous newspapers in the country I don't think you'd find any relationship. Between those lists. And. Saying go on our ship there's paper studies you'd find both on both less. That is you'd find some of the porous newspapers in the country are in the most highly competitive areas and some of the best newspapers in the country are in areas that are not highly competitive and vice versa. It is I just don't think there's any direct relationship between the two. There are bad things of course about the diminishing number of newspapers
but there are there are factors that tend to balance that and that the stronger newspapers are frequently better newspapers. In fact the reason that there are mergers is in order to produce stronger newspapers it's because the weak ones just don't survive. In conclusion let's hear from William P. Stephens editor of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. I have always contended that more important. Than the number of newspapers. Is for a community to have a newspaper owner and publisher. Who is himself deeply concerned about and well informed and who works at being informed on the major problems that confront his community his state his nation and his world. And when you have that kind of a devoted publisher. Then the product that the community gets is very apt to be. A product that is
superior to what you would have if you had just anybody being publisher and you had 15 of them in town. Again the issue is not. How many newspapers you have but how good is the newspaper you've got. Are newspapers better than ever. Do we dare generalize on the basis of the comments we have heard today Fortes remain. There are abuses which must be corrected. But of one thing all of these editors are sure newspaper mergers are not the only problem. And in any case our inevitable mergers have no direct bearing on whether a paper is giving adequate coverage to the news. If competition between newspapers is no longer as significant as it once was. Competition between newspapers and other news media has grown. And a corollary to this might be if a balance of editorial opinion is to be maintained in this country more and more responsibility may fall in the future on
radio and television. Finally as Mr Stevens points out and lightened editorship is the key to high standards. If the editors we have heard from today can be considered typical of the American public has little to fear. You have been listening to another in a series of programs on news in 20th century America. In this series we explore all facets of gathering writing and dissemination of news in this country today by means of recorded interviews with leading news men and women interviewers for this series are Glen Phillips and Ed Burroughs serving as consultant was Professor kind of steward of the University of Michigan Department of journalism news in 20th century America is produced by the University of Michigan broadcasting service under a grant from the Educational Television and Radio Center and is distributed by the National Association of educational broadcasters speaking.
- News in 20th Century America
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- Newspaper Better?
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- News in 20th Century America is a radio series on the gathering, writing, and dissemination of news. Each episode addresses a specific topic in the news industry, and features interviews with men and women who make news their business. This program is produced by the University of Michigan Broadcasting Service in cooperation with the National Association of Educational Broadcasters.
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