LONDON — The newspaper industry is ailing; but I do not think that newspapers will altogether die.
— Tom Driberg, one of Fleet Street’s premier
journalists, is also a Member of Parliament.
As more newspaper titles disappear, and more finger-waggers point to the culprits responsible for the mounting obituary notices, Tom Driberg’s prediction, though muted, is reassuring. However, his view that newspapers’ indispositions are not 100 per cent terminal, is not shared by fellow journalist Gerald Healey. Writing in Editor & Publisher, he cautioned: “Newspaper content and the manner in which it is presented is losing rather than gaining readers, and editors who fail to recognize the danger signals will be implicated in continued downtrends in circulation.”
The demise of the News Chronicle, a London daily which enjoyed a readership of nearly three million, was caused, Driberg writes, “partly because its character had been eroded by managerial interference with editorial policy.” One N-C word-jester attributed the collapse to “thrombosis,” which he defined as “an active circulation impeded by clots.” If some editor at The New York Times London bureau, where the piece originated, had asked Driberg whether his “t” in clots should not have been a “d” as in clods, the word-jester’s intent would have been obvious. Among Driberg’s “probably Utopian” recommendations for the future of British newspapers, he offered this advice:
• Keep the existing ‘quality’ newspapers and continue to improve their content.
• No advertisements, except for necessary public information — readers to pay almost the economic price for their papers.
• Let newspapers die that deserve to die: ample redundancy compensation for all staffs.
I demur to comment on the latter one. However, from my thousands of cuttings from the British press, I offer the following example for today’s American successors to Russell Baker and Art Buchwald. This, by John Gordon in his Current Events column in The Sunday Express: “Mr. Billy Graham expresses the opinion that the world will end within the next five years. But coincidentally his London representatives take a 21-year-lease of a building. The thoughts of great minds are obviously not running parallel.”
On a more somber side, Anglo-American fiscal woes now command more space, and not only in the pages of the Financial Times and Wall Street Journal. “People who believe in signs and portents have plenty of reading matter here. The anguished financial pages’ prognostications as to what Wall Street and the City [Britain’s monetary capital] will do next are accompanied in most newspapers by horoscope columns which, in case readers have lost faith in their brokers, should restore their belief in the stars. In the meantime, active realists are placing more hope for relief in the new British-American trade pacts, since they will loosen transatlantic money, if any is left, and anyhow tighten transatlantic democratic bonds.” This, from Janet Flanner’s Letter from London, in The New Yorker.
Returning to our side of the Atlantic, Gerald Healey in his E& P feature, asked editors attending a three-day seminar in St. Louis, Mo. in January, this question: “Are Newspapers Doomed?”
“No,” responded four editors. “But,” they cautioned, “it is realized that troublesome times are ahead for those not contemplating editing and writing for readers.”
Mike Davies, managing editor of the Louisville Times in Kentucky, declared that “Readers are turning inward from the news of the day. They are tired of ‘crisis’ journalism and dull, uninteresting newspapers.”
Ray Noonan, assistant managing editor of the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, declared “there is no room for complacency and editors must quickly get to what revamping is necessary.” He “blamed circulation losses on de-population of the city core areas, aggravating printing errors and delayed press runs which mean late delivery [and] the recession which cut down on multiple newspapers in homes.”
Maxwell McCrohon, managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, said “Newspapers must decide whether they want to be a mass paper or a class paper.” He recommended using “suburban inserts piggybacking with main sheets, because of the trend by suburbanites to read more about their local communities.”
Then came Ed Miller, executive editor of the Allentown (Pa.) Call & Chronicle. He “scolded dailies for various failings,” including doing nothing perceptive about the energy crisis and the recurring natural gas shortage. “The future is all around us, but we are too interested in getting the ‘now’ things into the paper.” He answered his own question, “Is the editor relating to readers?” with “The final answers to the future and reader relations are in the readers themselves. We must get them interested. Why don’t teenagers read papers? There is nothing interesting to them.”
Ed Miller discovered that teens who are lukewarm on newspaper content are not an isolated sample of readership, or of managerial opinion. On a visit to a hospital to see his publisher, Miller recounted this patient’s words: “You know, I’ve been reading the paper a lot while here and find there’s a lot of stuff in it. But do you know it is damn dull.”
Miller’s response to his publisher’s lament: “Good, bright writing is the answer. Are you hiring talented people?”
Has it ever been otherwise?
Yes, attentive reader, your suspicion is confirmed; there is indeed a time-warp here, rather like H. G. Wells’ forward-programmed Time Machine balking, then reversing itself.
Tom Driberg’s Prescription for a Healthy Press ran in The New York Times on Sept. 11, 1971.
Editor & Publisher’s Gerald Healey reported newspaper editors’ warnings and recommendations in the magazine’s Jan. 31, 1976 issue. The financial turmoil that palsied Britain’s stiff upper lip was by Janet Flanner, under the nom de correspondence of Genet. It appeared in The New Yorker on Dec. 1, 1937.
Richard Kepler Brunner is a longtime seasonal visitor to Chilmark. A retired editorial page editor of a Times-Mirror newspaper, he lives in Emmaus, Pa., and contributes occasional commentary piece to the Gazette.