Newspapers brace for a dive into demo pool

FOR YEARS PRINT JOURNALISTS have reveled in a sense of superiority compared with our perfectly coifed, happy-talking TV brethren, deriving comfort from knowing those lighter paychecks are offset by the fact that we traffic in “news,” not showbiz.

Certainly, broadcast news isn’t garnering much good publicity these days. Skilled practitioners of the craft, including former “Nightline” producer Leroy Sievers and CBS correspondent Tom Fenton, have stepped forward to say what “The Daily Show” demonstrates nightly — that in chasing younger demos, television news has let standards slide, shirked its responsibilities and gone to hell in the proverbial handbasket.

What’s naive, though, is the shortsighted assumption that major newspapers are immune from such compromises, when all signs point to a reckoning as the same profit-motivated pressures build. Indeed, far from print shaming television to be smarter and more sober — one rationale, ultimately, for all that tart criticism through the years — every indication says TV is achieving the opposite effect, compelling print to dumb itself down.

Just consider the parade of disquieting reports that have marched by regarding the health of the newspaper industry. Disappointing earnings at the New York Times and Wall Street Journal. Steep circulation declines at the Los Angeles Times and Boston Globe, with lesser drops at the Knight-Ridder papers. Moreover, a Journal story this week noted execs have begun to emphasize “readership” — that is, the “quality” of who peruses their pages — as opposed to circulation.

A good rule of thumb: Anyone attempting to change the rules during the game isn’t operating from a position of strength.

THE LATEST WAKEUP CALL came from Rupert Murdoch. In a speech this month to the American Society of Newspaper Editors, the News Corp. chairman counseled that newspapers must embrace the Web and adapt to younger readers’ appetites, doling out a different kind of news “in the way consumers want to receive it.”

Murdoch is a hard guy to dismiss, since in the nearly 20 years I’ve followed him he has exhibited an unparalleled knack for seeing around corners. Yet succumbing to this “The customer’s always right” approach helps explain why journalists are already held in such low esteem.

As it is, newspapers are pressing for stories to be shorter, brighter, more colorful. There’s greater emphasis on four-color art than news value, particularly within feature pages. Gray old papers and newsmagazines also have sought to enliven front pages by paying extra attention to “pop culture,” even if they often seem a little fuzzy on the concept.

Print outlets are simultaneously encouraging their staffs to get out and “do” television, even if that means appearing as experts in dubious venues. Take the Newsweek correspondent who found himself vamping through a “Britney’s Pregnant!” segment last week on Headline News’ “Showbiz Tonight.” The only things missing, in hindsight, were a kazoo band and floppy red shoes.

This mandate to entice younger readers — to be more confrontational, lively and provocative — invariably comes at a price. It’s terrific in theory, until the facts inconveniently begin to get in the way and credibility suffers.

MUCH HAS BEEN MADE of eroding public trust toward journalists, but those charges too often reference so-called liberal bias when the more insidious problem involves “sensationalism bias” — overreaching to “sell” stories, driven by ambition at the expense of accuracy, potentially alienating all sides of the political spectrum.

Although casual readers might not even consciously recognize this hyperbolic drift, it’s a factor in their disdain and a reason why so many gee-whiz stories quickly fade. Anecdotal trends under titillating headlines (witness the recent hubbub over the New York Times’ “man date” feature) lack the weight to withstand a cool breeze. This hunger for “impact” also leads to cutting corners, as the Detroit Free Press’ Mitch Albom did by filing a past-tense NCAA Final Four column prior to the event, suggesting the five people he’s met on Earth didn’t include a copy editor.

While I don’t question for a moment the business logic behind tailoring news to suit the next generation, forgive my discomfort as to where that path takes us. Before going further, maybe we need to amend that famous ’60s anti-war slogan a bit — something like, “Don’t trust anyone under 30 — especially if they’re being presented as a model for how to shape the news.”

BENEDICT XVI, You’re hired! The ideological debate surrounding Fox News Channel obscures a key element in why the network leads the cable news race: It’s simply more fun.

“WE’VE GOT A POPE!” the onscreen banner blared Tuesday, once the white smoke appeared at the Vatican.

Try topping that, Wolf Blitzer.

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