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Newspaper editors hopeful amid woes

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The news about newspapers is alarming but not hopeless - and there are actually a few good tidings, according to a report released Monday by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The key to the newspaper's ultimate survival is "a good business model and strong journalism," the report says.

"If we're going to succeed, we have got to drive with our brights on," says Dolph Simons, editor of the Lawrence Journal-World, a Kansas paper.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism, a nonpartisan research group funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, based the report's findings on surveys of editors and top news executives at 259 daily papers across the nation.

First, the bad news: Fully 85 percent of the dailies with a circulation of more than 100,000 readers have cut their staffs in the past three years, primarily owing to financial pressures. More than half of the editors expect the cutbacks to continue.

Fifty-two percent of the smaller papers also report pared staffs, and a third of their editors expect more of the same in the near future.

The print-media massacre has a positive yield, though.

The survey found that despite the cuts, 56 percent of the editors overall "think their news product is better than it was three years earlier."

Specifically, the majority laud the quality of writing, the depth of reporting and the comprehensiveness of the coverage. Virtually all of the editors - 94 percent - say their papers are as accurate, or more accurate, than they had been three years ago.

"Through all that's happened, the quality of our work is among the best I've seen, and I've been here 31 years," says David Wilson, managing editor of the Miami Herald.

Crisis has tempered newspapers and made them brighter and sharper, the report says. But editors are cautious. A bare majority - 51 percent - say they feel confident about the future.

The very culture itself has changed as newsrooms seek a tenable balance between traditional journalistic values and the stark financial demands of the competitive media marketplace.

The survey found that 97 percent of the editors are involved in ferreting out "new revenue streams" for their publications - making money from Web advertising, microtargeting new audiences, developing "niche" products or strategic alliances with advertisers or community groups.

Reality appears to have trumped once lofty ethics. Fifty-seven percent of the editors say they are not concerned with the blurring of lines between the editorial and business sides of their papers.

"I never thought 10 years ago that I'd be suggesting some of the things that I have," one unnamed editor told researchers.

The impact of the Internet on newspapers is a work in progress. While six out of 10 editors say that Web technology is an ally rather than an enemy to newspapers, 48 percent say they are "conflicted" about the endless demand for new, exciting content.

Still, journalists are not known to shrink from a challenge.

The research found that 100 percent of the respondents say writing skills are essential to the contemporary newsroom - along with computer skills and the ability to write quickly (cited by 96 percent), multimedia skills (90 percent) and data-analysis skills (83 percent). Eighty-one percent say their print and online editions are "part of the same product."

Eighty percent of the newsrooms have "early teams" on duty before dawn, 70 percent offer staff-written blogs and a third support "micro-sites," or specific-interest online communities.

Among the editors, 90 percent laud the value of "Mo-Jos," or tech-savvy mobile journalists who can file video or written reports from any location.

Such revelations are influencing content. Two-thirds of the editors say space devoted to foreign news has dropped in the last three years. More than half have cut back on national news, and a third have trimmed business news.

What's hot? Local news, sports, regional news and investigative or enterprise stories are deemed "essential" by more than 90 percent of the respondents.

The findings are based on face-to-face interviews and a 43-question written survey conducted between November and Feb. 28.

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