Newspapers still have key role to play in high-tech age

by Eric Johnston

Staff Writer

KOBE — Now that the multimedia age has arrived, newspapers can still remain a vital public service and a profitable business as long as publishers, editors and reporters understand the strengths and weaknesses of their technology and the role the traditional paper format plays.

That appears to have been the main message of the 51st World Newspaper Congress, which ended here Wednesday. The conference drew nearly 800 people from around the world involved in all aspects of newspaper publishing. The congress was divided into two sessions: a general meeting that focused for the most part on noneditorial issues and technology, and the World Editors Forum, which discussed newspaper content.

Participants spent a good deal of time listening to presentations about telecommunications and the Internet, and not all of them liked what they heard. Traditional newspaper companies have been both fascinated by and afraid of this new technology. While some multimedia consultants who spoke warned that traditional newspapers will soon be obsolete, publishers and editors sought ways in which high technology could be happily wedded with traditional editorial standards and control.

Advocates of the Internet admit that no one has figured out how to make a profit on it. However, several panelists, notably Mario Garcia, a Web page designer, predicted that advertisers will begin using the Internet in force within the next five years. At the same time, he said, newspapers have less to worry about than other forms of media. “Multimedia will affect the television industry more than newspapers,” Garcia said.

For editors, the medium is not as important as the message. Maintaining high standards and ensuring accuracy at a time when technology and competition from other media forms grow ever more intense remains the largest concern. At the same time, several panelists spoke on the worldwide backlash against sensational reporting, especially the flood of articles that followed the death of Princess Diana.

Japanese participants noted that the media here have faced criticism for their coverage of the Jun Hase murder in Kobe last year and the 1994 sarin gas attack in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture. One key complaint heard throughout the conference was that newspapers have lost touch with ordinary readers.

Also on the minds of participants was press freedom.

The World Association of Newspapers has pledged to make press freedom a priority in the coming years. Timothy Balding, the association’s director general, has said this includes discussing not only human rights violations in the Third World but also Japan’s closed press clubs.

“We are committed to free and fair access to sources, and will take up the issue of Japan’s press clubs with the Japan Newspaper Publishers & Editors Association,” Balding said at a Wednesday evening news conference.