The University Record, September 18, 2000

Newspapers need to adopt multi-media strategy, says editor

By John Woodford
News and Information Services

Newspaper companies have little to fear from the rise of new communications media, so long as they successfully absorb and adapt the new technologies in a “multi-media approach” to journalism, said a leading newspaper editor Sept. 7.

“Unless they commit suicide” through lusting too hotly for profits at the expense of responsible journalism, newspapers “will not die,” said Ellen Soeteber, managing editor of the Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) Sun-Sentinel.

Soeteber, who delivered the Michigan Journalism Fellows Program’s 15th annual Hovey Lecture, told an audience of 100 at Wallace House that newspapers are “re-emerging as the nation’s major mass medium for news” because newspaper companies have interwoven radio, TV, cable, satellite and Internet operations with their print operations.

The Fellows program, housed at the Wallace House on Oxford, brings mid-career journalists from around the world to campus for an expenses-paid year of study of academic subjects that interest them. Soeteber studied architecture and contemporary art as a Fellow in 1986–87.

Predictions of the death of newspapers have followed each entrance of a new technology on the media stage—radio in the 1920s, TV in the 1950s, and satellite, cable and Internet devices more recently, but newspapers have evolved to meet each challenge and can continue to do so, Soeteber said.

Soeteber, the first female metropolitan editor of the Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Sentinel’s parent company, traced the evolution of the multi-media approach. In the wake of ownership of various forms of media by the same company, reporters not only continue to write newspaper stories but also deliver their stories on TV and radio broadcasts and place them on the Internet as well, increasingly in interactive live formats.

In her talk, “Beyond the Front Page: Why Newspapers Are Going Multi-Media,” Soeteber said newspapers occupy a central role in the diverse forms of news “product delivery” because they have the “greatest trove of resources.”

Furthermore, she said, newspapers tend to take more seriously the civic and First Amendment responsibilities of the press to a democratic society. As a result, she said, communities stand to benefit if the press develops a “wider means of doing what we do,” so long as journalists strive to uphold their standards of professional ethics and credibility.

Categorizing various news media as distinct and rivalrous is an “artificial construct,” Soeteber said, since the press, radio and TV all do the same thing—“develop news and information and offer them to the general public.”

Journalists gather their stories in very much the same way they always have, Soeteber said, but the modes of producing and distributing the information have changed. She cited as an example the Chicago Tribune’s launching of a local cable news station, modeled on CNN, in which reporters may release some stories even before the paper version hits the streets and homes.

Call it what you will—media integration, synergy, convergence, cross-media or multi-media—the new practice is here to stay, Soeteber predicted, because “to gain new audiences for our work, we need to ‘extend our brand,’ to put it in business terms.” That means, she explained, “using all the means at our disposal to get our work to the most people possible; we have value, quality, depth” and also a desire to “fulfill our First Amendment mission.”

The main financial danger looming before newspapers specifically is that “we could cannibalize ourselves,” Soeteber said. Such an outcome is possible, she said, if classified advertising “migrates out of newspapers” into one of the other media formats, which could cost newspapers “from a quarter to a third” of their revenue.

Soeteber also pointed to another worry, the fragmentation of TV viewership under the pressure of “nascent online usage.” Emerging broadband technologies that amalgamate print, audio and video pose yet another challenge. “Will this threaten newspapers as it has TV?” she wondered. “Only time will tell.”

She discounted the impact of monopoly ownership on competition, contending that the “biggest risk” arises not from monopoly ownership “but from separate and small vehicles without resources to do what large enterprises do now.”

President Lee C. Bollinger and Earl Lewis, dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, responded to Soeteber’s remarks.

Lewis noted that the Fellows program permits the University to “engage in conversations with practicing journalists,” a boon to the school and the nation at large since “democracy in America has gone hand in hand with a free press.”

Bollinger compared cross-media partnerships with the connections being made within and among institutions of higher education. Noting widespread talk about “global education” and the technologies that might serve it, he suggested that universities might conclude that it is wiser to preserve their “more specialized” roles rather than to undertake multiple ones unrelated to their historic mission.

Whether the special nature of higher education is “worth holding on to,” is something to ponder, Bollinger said. “What is our purpose? The newspaper’s purpose is to disseminate information, news and knowledge. Is that our purpose? Is it our job to develop knowledge in all forms, or is it to educate the broadest possible groups of humanity we can reach?”

An important change that may affect responses to these questions, Bollinger said, is the shift under way from identification of the University mainly with citizens of the state of Michigan toward identification “with all citizens of the United States.”

The shift does not stop there, he added. “What of the identification with and responsibilities to people who live outside our nation’s borders?” he asked. Possibilities exist for an even greater extension of sympathies, contacts and responsibilities by the University, he said, “and it is open as to whether and how we’ll do that.”

The lecture series honors Graham B. Hovey, the 1980–86 director of the program and professor emeritus of communication, who was in attendance with his wife. Hovey is a former foreign correspondent for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and correspondent and editorial writer for the New York Times. Charles R. Eisendrath, associate professor of communication studies, is the program’s current director.