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INVISIBLE INK

THE VANISHING NEWSPAPER: Saving Journalism in the Information Age

By Philip Meyer

University of Missouri Press, $24.95, 270 pp

Reviewed by STEVE WEINBERG

The ownership of a daily newspaper affects the amount and quality of the information received by its readers. So, given the shift from family ownership to bottom line-oriented corporate ownership of so many newspapers, Philip Meyer's book is especially timely.

A thoughtful, reform-minded journalist, Meyer is a former newspaper reporter (the Miami Herald, among others) who now teaches at the University of North Carolina journalism school. His 1973 book, Precision Journalism, had a gigantic impact on information-gathering techniques by reporters. Later books about journalists acting ethically and journalists relating better to members of their audience caused positive changes in the craft as well.

The Vanishing Newspaper, however, might be Meyer's most important book of all. If quality newspapers cease to exist, who will provide reliable information to mass audiences? Because of the Internet and other new technologies, because so many youngsters do not subscribe, because so many long-devoted readers are aging and dying, many newspapers are less profitable than in decades past. They are resolving their earnings shortfalls by skimping on quality _ firing reporters and editors, restricting travel in pursuit of the truth, closing bureaus in Washington, D.C., and overseas, ending home delivery in outlying areas and thus cutting off faithful readers.

Given the sad situation, Meyer decided to explore whether a connection exists between quality newspapers and profitability. Although his book does not prove a causal connection beyond a shadow of a doubt, Meyer presents lots of compelling circumstantial evidence of a linkage. Newspapers sell well when they gain the trust of their readers and therefore exercise influence in their community. Newspapers that lessen their quality in an attempt to improve profits first lose trust, then lose influence, eventually lose circulation, and inevitably lose advertising revenue that is based on circulation.

So, refusing to abandon hope for newspapers, Meyer addresses nonjournalist readers, journalists, their paymasters, advertisers and the much-reviled Wall Street analysts who place short-term profits over long-term anything.

Newspapers run by owners who care simultaneously about quality and profits "have done as well as they have in recent years by finding ways to meet more specialized needs inside the framework of the umbrella newspaper," Meyer says. "Examples include geographic zoning, special sections, foreign language editions and less-than-daily products aimed at niche audiences."

The "influence as good business model" is applicable to all those strategies, Meyer says. "Newspapers will always do better in places where they are trusted." That means the primary challenge today "is to discover and understand the specialized populations where it is most feasible to build trust and exercise influence."

One step, Meyer says, might be for journalists to set up an apparatus certifying reporters and editors as competent in certain subject areas, such as covering education or medicine. Consumers who trust physicians or accountants, for example, do so in part because those professionals are certified as competent. Discerning newspaper readers are learning that much of the information on the Web is untrustworthy. A medium like newspapers that can assert trustworthiness convincingly ought to benefit in many ways, not least financially.

The ultimate winners are a city's residents, Meyer is convinced. If newspapers do not cover local news thoroughly, what medium will? Television news in most cities is by definition shallow. Most radio stations have abandoned original newsgathering. Local magazines are usually focused more on lifestyles than on news, and appear only once a month. Web sites examining local governance tend to be amateurish, biased, or both. Meyer is a newspaperman at heart, one who believes that "the daily miracle" bears a public trust as well a fiduciary obligation to enrich its shareholders.

Meyer's assessment of this country's newspapers is not very complimentary. He does point out, however, that there is one U.S. newspaper in an ownership class by itself: the St. Petersburg Times. The Times, which Meyers says is "highly respected" within journalism circles, is owned by the not-for-profit Poynter Institute, which itself is devoted to the improvement of journalism across the nation. The percentage of Times revenue devoted to newsgathering, according to Meyer, is about one-third higher than the norm.

Steve Weinberg is an investigative journalist who has learned from decades of research that newspapers and some magazines, with all their faults, are more reliable than any other form of journalism.

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