- The Washington Times - Friday, July 27, 2001

Newspapers must get cozy and intimate with readers, providing a thoughtful respite in an age of shrill, relentless media clutter — or they won't survive.

So says a survey of American newspapers released yesterday by the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, which found that nine out of 10 editors at 512 papers think the whole industry now depends on "interactivity" with readers rather than daily screamer headlines and scandal.

More than half the editors, in fact, said they make a "conscious effort" not to hang stories around "conflict."

Such doings might make a traditional newsman fret that dailies will sacrifice backbone and grit to sensitivity training.

The trend may indicate, however, a reinvention of public-minded journalism and news integrity, and evidence that newspapers are at last defining their turf in the 24-hour news marketplace.

"Journalists are realizing their role is to connect with readers and interact with communities, not to be disconnected and aloof," said Chris Peck, editor of the Spokesman-Review of Spokane, Wash.

The Pew Center bills it as a dramatic and "healthy" shift in sensibilities.

"This represents a sea change in the relationship between newsroom and the public for a whole generation of journalists who joined the profession after Watergate," said center director Jan Schaffer, who added that journalism is "less a one-way pipeline for information and more a two-way conversation."

It is still an identity crisis, though.

In an effort to compete with the entertaining immediacy of cable news and the Internet, 89 percent of the country's newspapers have been redesigned to include hipper packaging, color and snappy graphics. Readers have been identified as "streakers, strollers or scholars," while gimmicky outreach efforts include town meetings, community forums and reader-written columns.

As staffs further divine the role of the printed page, newspapers may take on some intangible characteristics.

"The newspaper is an emotional, not an informational experience," noted one editor, an observation that could benefit the discerning leader, not to mention the savvy marketeer.

An overwhelming 99 percent of the editors said they "must" know what's on their reader's minds, and 98 percent said it shaped their coverage. The survey found that education, health, business and personal finance, energy development and the environment were the hot topics du jour, followed by lifestyle, community news and demographics.

Crime and the courts placed at the bottom of the list.

Few of the editors were particularly comfortable with it all.

Almost three-quarters said they were not satisfied with their "newsroom level of interactivity with readers" and more than half disliked the label "civic journalism," though they approved of the philosophy.

What should a newspaper be, then?

"News explainer," first off, the survey said — followed by news breaker, investigative watchdog, catalyst for community conversation, community steward and finally, "disseminator of just the facts."

"The newspaper is the community gathering place," said one editor. "That puts us in a leadership role, whether we wanted it or not."

Newspapers remain stubbornly low-tech.

Almost two-thirds of the editors said their newsrooms relied on a traditional beat structure, based on old-fashioned news gathering on the phone or in the field.

Only 10 percent said their reporters used the Internet for their content.

• Contact Jennifer Harper at jharper@washingtontimes.com or 202/636-3085.

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