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Owners win; newspaper readers lose

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The Seattle Times ownership’s decision to shrink the width of its newspaper — and editor Mike Fancher’s July 17 column explaining the rationale — demonstrates a commitment to maintaining financial return rather than providing news to its readership.

Beginning this week, the Times‘ broadsheet pages will be one inch narrow; its tab sections will be one inch shorter. Fancher says that newsprint prices have climbed 40 percent in the past three years and will likely go higher.

That’s a sound rationale, of course. The First Amendment may protect newspapers from government interference, but newspapers must be financially healthy to do their jobs. They must make a profit. (We’ll leave for another time a discussion of what amounts to appropriate profit.)

But this shrinkage comes at a cost to the reader. Says Fancher:

A narrower page means less space for news content, but we’re still sorting out how much of an impact there will be. We’re committed to doing all we can to minimize the loss of content and information. (emphasis added)

In other words, news content for readers may suffer, but erosion of profit for the Times‘ owners will be slowed.

Owners 1, Readers 0.

(For a look at the tangled ownership struggle involving the Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer joint operating agreement, go here and here.)

Fancher quotes Rochester (N.Y.) Democrat and Chronicle editor Tom Callinan, who faced the same shrinkage of his paper, as saying he liked the narrower format but “as a reader, I do not want to be cheated out of news.”

Fancher adopts Callinan’s solution for the decreased newshole: tighter writing. Fancher passes on Callinan’s version of Strunk & White’s call for concise, vigorous writing:

“Vigorous presentation is concise, layered and compelling. …This requires not that the editor or page designer make all his/her headlines small, or that he or she avoid all detail and treat subjects only in 12-inch stories or 2 x 4 photos, but that every inch, every pica and every page tells. (emphasis added)

Again, tighter writing — clearer writing — is always a good idea for journalists. But as the newshole shrinks, at what point does tight writing become unable to provide the context and subtlety that news stories ought to provide readers? Also, it’s easy to talk the “tight-writing” commitment, but it’s tough to walk it, given the erosion of news staffs in recent years (meaning fewer copy editors to hold that “tight-writing” line).

Owners 1 1/2, Readers 1/2.

Fancher ends his list of justifications with a note from a reader:

“Great Idea. When I was in L.A. the paper was the smaller size. It was easier to hold when reading. Thanks.”

Sadly, this tells as much about readership as it does ownership. Readers should expect more from a newspaper than “it’s easier to hold.” But if ownership tries to justify trading amount of news with ease of physical use, it’s a bad tradeoff for the reader.

Owners 2 1/2, Readers 1/2. Owners win!

Mind you, the Seattle Times is an extraordinary American newspaper, one that I read with great pleasure while in grad school in the Northwest. It has won seven Pulitzer prizes and is roughly the 40th-largest paper in America. And Fancher is a first-rate editor.

But bit by bit, the ability of great and not-so-great newspapers to hold government accountable — which is why they were given First Amendment protection — is whittled down by ownership’s desire to minimize shrinkage of profits.

In case you’re wondering … According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, newspapers now enjoy profits in the low to mid-20 percent range.

That’s what owners are trying to protect — not their ability to best serve their readers.

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Written by Dr. Denny Wilkins

July 18, 2005 at 4:30 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response

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  1. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
    I grew up reading the Rochester D&C and now work for a weekly newspaper in one of the communities it should be covering. The D&C’s shrinking news hole and “tight” writing really has become a big fluff section and huge gaps in local coverage. It’s driven purely by advertising – a new redesign of the living section has resulted in a working-mom section of marshmallow stories and big BIG graphics.
    In news, the paper consistently misses big stories in the suburbs, downplays others and seems to ignore entire coverage areas for weeks and months at a time.
    Of course, the reporters cover huge beats- 8 communities or an entire county in addition to two municipalities are just two examples.
    But I haven’t seen “every inch, every pica” telling me much of anything lately. It’s certainly not nuanced or penetrating coverage. It’s become mainly a drive-by report.
    It’s sad to see great papers like Seattle’s shrinking in size. Coverage suffers, no matter how hard and fast the bigwigs spin it.

    Anonymous

    July 20, 2005 at 2:27 pm


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