31 January 1997 - 02 February 1997

What Future for Quality Newspapers?

Chair: Mr Andrew Knight

We began with an evident disposition, doubtless reflecting our make-up, to take almost as given that “serious” newspapers were relevant to and important for the health of democracy and civil society in our countries. Whether or not particular newspaper viewpoints made much difference to how the readers voted in elections, good newspaper content must play a significant part in directing attention to issues and providing material to support or stimulate judgement. It also had a key role in serving as watchdog over and challenger to those exercising power - and the power-exercisers typically thought, whether accurately or not, that what newspapers said about them mattered.           

We knew that other media had moved into territory once dominated by newspapers; the vivid immediacy of television had huge impact, even though some participants were wary of the seeming intimacy viewers might think it imparted in knowing and assessing public figures. But the volume of communication - with a thirty-minute news broadcast containing barely half the words in a broadsheet newspaper’s front page - was limited, and the sound-bite approach often ruled. Reading in itself had a distinctive value in the process of learning; and at the other extreme from television’s brevity, the vast cascade from the internet and similar new information-providers needed mediation of some kind. Newspapers had special merits in their ability, alongside wide subject coverage, to select and analyse, offering context and framework. Provided that they took care to exercise this function in ways that readers found relevant, they still had no close rival in fulfilling it.                           

There had of course, over recent decades, been a massive expansion in what serious newspapers offered their readers - now not just a coverage of “news” in a classical sense, but a wide range of other material on almost every aspect of practical living. The metaphor of the supermarket recurred throughout our discussions; and this expansion seemed to most of us an unquestionable advance, both for what it offered in direct added service and as an attraction supporting the disposition - now less to be taken for granted than in the past - to take in a newspaper’s orthodox news content. (But we were wisely reminded that quality in the expanded components was also a part of seriousness overall - analogies of sugar and pill would in no way be apt.)

Seriousness as measured by span and volume of news coverage had, we heard, grown in most newspapers alongside the supermarket expansion. But a measure of at least equal importance was the quality standard achieved in the coverage; and here - though our discussion perhaps did not tackle the issue in quite the depth we might have hoped - there was more ground for or at least expression of misgiving. Judgements were far from unanimous, but worries were voiced about whether standards of care, accuracy, balance and even conscious veracity were being sustained. There were concerns that news presentation too often drifted - perhaps through a perceived need to compete with the attention-grabbing power of TV - into a negativist focus upon personalities, disputes, “scandals” and feet-of-clay weaknesses. Not all of us were persuaded to attach importance to claims that all this unduly damaged public trust in leaders and institutions; but it arguably impaired the contribution newspapers made in their key task of helping readers to a realistic understanding of the world around them.                                                                                               

We had spirited exchanges about whether the distinction between sacred facts and free comment was being sufficiently upheld in news coverage. A segment of participants felt strongly that in some distinguished newspapers the injection of opinion into the presentation of news - and into what was chosen for coverage – was threatening standards, and therefore in the long term trust in newspapers themselves. Others, while not wholly denying the facts/comment distinction, argued that it was not realistic, and perhaps not even theoretically desirable, to imagine that newspapers could be utterly neutral. Any selection and presentation of news must inevitably reflect some point of view; and while orientation should not degenerate into crude partisanship, it was in itself healthy provided that it was honest, and made evident to readers in a reasonably consistent way. That said, we heard concern voiced about the outcome that selectivity sometimes yielded - in Britain, for example, across almost all the broadsheets a skewed current presentation of European issues; in Germany, a virtual conspiracy of silence about the downside of the drive to monetary union.

We wondered inconclusively what key features, or what changes in them, nowadays distinguished the target reader of the serious newspaper. Opposing strands were adduced: remarkable levels of apparent public ignorance (such as the majority supposition in the United States that foreign aid absorbed far more public money than Medicare) alongside a notable expansion of higher education, potentially generating a larger but not elitist intelligentsia (the phrase “worldly cerebrals” raised eyebrows and won acclaim in roughly equal measure) albeit one less habituated than in the past to acquiring knowledge and developing opinion through the written word and the patient attention it sought. A good deal of argument developed around the term “dumbing down”, with some though not all participants anxious to repudiate any such shift as reflecting a patronising lack of confidence in readers. Quality in presentation of public issues need not be antithetical to attractive readability, and if the competition a serious newspaper faced was primarily from tabloids and TV (a proposition not all accepted) it was by no means clear that the way to win the marginal customer was by moving down to some intermediate level in quality; apparently-successful examples of the contrary were cited. We were not sure how far the optimum approach might differ nationally, against the background that newspaper readerships were mostly lower in the US than in Europe, and (by even greater margins) than in Japan.

Competition proved a lively theme, with marked general differences evident between countries. In a way that in other fields might be thought surprising, the UK broadsheet scene was marked (aside perhaps from the special “niche” case of the Financial Times, paralleling the Wall Street Journal) by a contest for circulation and advertising far fiercer than in large areas of the US and to some extent in Germany, where key newspapers sometimes approached local or regional monopoly in the “serious” category. That perhaps carried the usual risks of monopoly, but it often contributed to a sense of community involvement which seemed a clear civic asset. We heard suggestions, though, that these patterns were being diluted both by the spread of corporate-chain ownership and by the national spread of such newspapers as the New York Times, arguably leaching news quality and breadth out of local provision.                                                                                                                                                                              

We had spirited exchanges on the significance of different patterns of ownership, and on the effect these had upon the development and behaviour of newspapers. In the United States, we learned, there was still widespread ownership by family trusts or similar institutions, though chain ownership was growing; in the UK,. ownership of a more “standard” commercial kind was the norm. The difference by no means corresponded neatly with differences in approaches to profit maximisation and therefore to circulation levels; but it seemed generally supposed that at least in the UK, even though there was no evidence (contrary to popular supposition) that proprietors like Mr Rupert Murdoch laid down editorial lines, a more determined insistence than in the past upon commercial success had an effect upon the character of their newspapers. Canadian experience suggested that there were still basic divergences of judgement (as for example between Mr Conrad Black and the Thomson group) about the merits of quality newspapers as businesses; but we all acknowledged that in today’s world such newspapers could not expect to escape the pressures of commercial adequacy, and that these pressures must inescapably invalidate any aspiration to keep the editorial side neatly insulated from the financial andmarketing side. It remained clear that many participants were powerfully attracted to the concept of serious newspapers as providing a special public service of a professional character and standard; but we found no agreed reconciliation between this concept and the expectation (which most though not all thought to be in awkward tension with it) of stockholders that returns on capital should match general market standards.                                                                                                                                   

What part in all this had Governments to play? As little as possible, we were minded to think. We noted, without coming to clear judgement pro or con, that in countries like Japan and Canada public regulation or tax incentive constrained patterns of ownership, at least to the extent of impeding foreign participation. Even those of us who seemed most concerned about standards of reporting and comment seemed disinclined to suggest regulatory correctives; and we observed that that put especial responsibility for quality standards upon internal ethos, both editorial and proprietorial. Quite how that was to be encouraged and underpinned we did not fathom.

We should have liked to have more time to consider ways in which serious newspapers might evolve. Could they survive while still cleaving to the notion of themselves as newsprint-based (with the disadvantages that imposed, for example in cumbersome and slow distribution) or should they see themselves essentially as institutions defined and differentiated by function rather than form? We were sure that there was no one “right” model; that good newspapers must be flexible, and light on their feet; and that looking back towards a (mostly mythical) golden age would be a good recipe for getting the future wrong.

This report reflects the Director’s personal impressions of the conference. No participant is in any way committed to its content or expression.

Chairman: Mr Andrew Knight,                                                         
Director, The News Corporation; previously Editor, The Economist


Ms Lise Bissonnette                                                                                                                                              
Publisher, Le Devoir, Montreal                                                                                                                            
Mr Richard Dicemi
President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian Newspaper Association                                                      
Mr John A Fraser
Master, Massey College, University of Toronto

Madame Christine Ockrent                                                                                                                                   
Television producer and presenter, Editor, I'Express (1994-96)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 GERMANY                                                                                                                                                          
Dr Gunther Gillessen
Professor of Journalism, University of Mainz, and leader writer, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 1978-94
Dr Josef Joffe                                                                                                                                                         
Foreign Editor, Silddeutsche Zeitung

Mr Sadaaki Numata                                                                                                                                               
Minister, Embassy of Japan, London

UNITED KINGDOM                                                                                                                                          
Ms Frances Caimcross                                                                                                                                          
Media Editor, The Economist                                                                                                                               
Ms Linda Christmas
Senior Lecturer in Journalism, City University                                                                                                  
Mr Stephen Glover                                                                                                                                                
Columnist, Daily Telegraph and Spectator                                                                                                         
Mr Andrew Gowers                                                                                                                                               
Deputy Editor, Financial Times
Mr Roy Greenslade          
Freelance journalist, broadcaster and author                                                                                                       
Ms Brenda Haywood                                                                                                                                            
Executive Editor, Daily Telegraph
Mr Godfrey Hodgson
Director, The Reuter Foundation Programme
Mr Christopher Hudson
Freelance journalist
Mr Win Hutton
Editor, The Observer
Mr Robin Janvrin CB CVO
Deputy Private Secretary to The Queen
Mr Brian MacArthur
Associate Editor, The Times
Mr Peter Martin
UK Editor, International Edition, Financial Times
Mr Stephen Palmer
Marketing Director, The Guardian
Ms Jane Reed
Director of Corporate Affairs, News International pic
Mr Alan Rusbridger
Editor, The Guardian
Mr Peter Stothard
Editor, The Times
Mr Robert M Worcester
Chairman, MORI
Mr Hugo Young
Political columnist, The Guardian

Mr H Brandt Ayers
Editor and Publisher, The Anniston Star
The Hon John Brademas
President Emeritus, New York University; President, American Ditchley
Mrs Drue Heinz DBE
Mr Daniel Henninger
Deputy Editor, Editorial Pages, The Wall Street Journal
Mr Steven L Isenberg
Visiting Professor, Department of English and Graduate School of Journalism, University of California at Berkeley
Mr Alex S Jones
Author and broadcaster
Mr Robert G Kaiser
Managing Editor, The Washington Post
Mr Anthony Lewis
Columnist, The New York Times
Ms Diane McFarlin
Executive Editor, Sarasota Herald-Tribune
Mr Jack Rosenthal
Editor, New York Times Magazine
Ms Susan E Tifft
Author and journalist
Professor Seymour Topping
Administrator, Pulitzer Prize Board