WASHINGTON -- Fighting to regain readers, newspapers are increasing their interaction with the public by offering everything from new designs to reporters' e-mail addresses.
"The greatest writing in the world won't make a whit of difference if no one is there to read it," said Chris Peck, president of The Associated Press Managing Editors association and editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash.
"Editors and other journalists are stepping forward from the sidelines and saying, 'We have to find ways to engage our readers and communities again,"' Peck said Thursday at the National Press Club.
The APME sponsored a survey of 360 newspapers with the Pew Center for Civic Journalism and the National Conference of Editorial Writers.
The survey found many editors are soliciting tips from readers and using polls to spot trends that affect news coverage. Papers also are allowing readers to contact reporters directly, publish their own stories and discuss community problems in ways beyond the traditional letters to the editor.
For the past decade, newspaper circulation has fallen generally from 0.5 percent to 1 percent every year, newspaper industry analyst John Morton said, and editors are eager to stop the decline.
Nevertheless, he said the changes have not solved the problem. "It's too soon to tell how much impact it ultimately will have," Morton said.
Nine of 10 editors surveyed said the industry's future depends on greater interaction between newspapers and readers. The same number said their jobs involve more than merely delivering the news but also explaining the stories they publish and serving as investigative watchdogs.
Peck said editors are realizing that the next generation of readers have grown up in a world of cell phones and the Internet. "They want their world and their journalism to be interactive," he said.
About a fourth of newspapers have more education stories than five years ago and more information on health, medicine and personal fitness, the survey found. Three-quarters of the newspapers surveyed were covering fewer government meetings. There were smaller decreases in coverage of politics and crime.
The Campaign Study Group of Springfield, Va., handled the survey, initially sent to about 500 daily newspapers with at least 20,000 readers. Responses by mail, e-mail, fax and telephone from senior editors at 360 newspapers were collected between Jan. 1 and April 3.
The survey found:
--More than 40 percent of editors publish the telephone number of the reporter with each story, and more than half print the reporter's e-mail address.
--About 90 percent had changed their publications' designs in the past five years.
--More than 70 percent allow readers to have their ideas printed in formats other than letters to the editor.
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