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What readers want in their newspapers when future arrives

November 26, 1999

It began when my boss, publisher John League, asked me to write a column for National Newspaper Week on the future of the newspaper. After that appeared on Oct. 3, I asked readers to give me their preferences for the newspaper of the future, with a chance to win a $25 prize.

After receiving only two replies, from Edward James and Douglas Scott Arey, I extended the deadline on the premise that if I'm kicking in the prize out-of-pocket, I get to make up the rules. Happily, my second appeal for input has paid off. The latest contestants include:

- Patsy Myers, who echoes James' wish for new reported in "an unbiased, balanced manner" and a forum for local thinkers, as well a balanced mix of differing syndicated viewpoints.

"People are searching for reality. Witness the popularity of certain features and topics in The Daily Mail, including advice columns, Denise Troxell's series, creation versus evolution, Faith Chapel's Hell House, and even 'Mail Call.' "

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In short, the newspaper of the future should be informative and relevant to its readers.

- Pastor John Miller, who notes that the paper prints a daily horoscope, but not a Bible-based column of spiritual encouragement.

"If we cannot have a daily column of Biblical encouragement and inspiration then I say we get rid of the other religious material like the horoscopes."

- Bob Devinney feels the newspaper of the future will be delivered via cable TV. with different channelings accessing different parts of the paper, like the sports section, with all the news delivered as soon as it happens.

"The government and courts will be covered by your reporters real-time. We will receive the news as it's happening. Perhaps we, the citizenry, will even get to give our opinions, or heaven forbid, our verdict on issues of the day during official meetings of our elected public officials."

- Tom Immer, who says that "editorializing should be confined to columns and the editorial page. A newspaper must concentrate on stories of real interest that are better developed over time, by reporters who can actually use the English language correctly, and who understand the damage speculation can do to a story. Reporting on the news is fact-based, and those facts must be checked, not guessed at."

His formula for success: "Present the news, both good and bad, in an easy-to-read format and newspapers will live long and prosper, fail to do so and they will go the way of the horse and buggy."

- Agnes Jurgens, who says that "I have no great ideas for the future, but I know newspapers play an essential role in our lives.

"When my husband and I moved here from the Finger Lakes section of New York state in 1978, we immediately subscribed to the local newspaper, and shortly after, to The Morning Herald. Breakfast wouldn't be the same without the news."

And what else would she like?

"It would be nice to see more follow-up news to local events, but I know there's only so much space to use.

"As to ideas for the future, it would be nice to stick to news and forget all those slick 'ad magazines.' I know this probably won't happen."

Stephanie Long, a newspaper carrier who says that "I believe that in the future newspaper there should be a page printed once a month to honor a newspaper carrier of the month."

"Sure we get tips from our customers, and Christmas cards, but we still don't get a lot for the job that we do. I like my job and The Herald-Mail delivering newspapers! But I really don't like the fact that no one really credits us for our job. If there were now paper carriers, how would people read the paper?"

- Roger Young, who says tomorrow's newspaper will be Internet-based.

"Too busy to read through an entire newspaper, people will "click" on stories of interest to read at their computer or to print or convert to audio. While this can present some advantages (news stories updated by the minute, animated Hecht's lingerie ads. . . hmmm), I hope there will still be a role for the printed newspaper.

"Credibility will still be the key. An organization that prints a whole newspaper, whose reporters are visible in the community, and whose editorial page editor shells out $20 in contests such as this, have that credibility."

I'm tempted to reward Young's flattering statement, but it's Tom Immer's comments that really bring it home to me. What he's saying is a version of what many contestants have said: Get it right and be fair.

If that isn't done, it won't matter is the newspaper comes by cable or from a paper carrier riding a bicycle. Immer also suggests that good stories take time and solid research to develop. His comments also made me remember an old quote about the difference between stenography and reporting, and how intelligent questions can get underneath the surface of what seems to be the story. You're the winner, Mr. Immer. My only regret is that I can't send everybody a prize.




Bob Maginnis is Herald-Mail's Opinion Page editor. Write to him at 100 Summit Ave., Hagerstown, Md., 21740, or by e-mail at bobm@herald-mail.com

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