Newspapers See Danger in Text Messaging

BAGNAIA, Italy (AP)—International editors and publishers warned Friday that nontraditional communications—such as cell phone text messages—are rapidly outflanking radio, television, and print media because of their immediacy and proximity to the public.

In a two-day meeting to stimulate newspaper readership among the young, publishers from the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and the New York Post exchanged views with European media leaders on shrinking newspaper circulation and the European and American media scene.

The growing “thumb generation” posed the greatest new challenge to traditional media, with cell phone text messages conveying news, rumors and gossip, said Pedro J. Ramirez, editor of Spain’s El Mundo.

That challenge was evident after the March 11 train bombings in Madrid, Spain, that killed 191 people and injured more than 2,000 others just three days before national elections.

Nina Calarco, editor and publisher of southern Italy’s Gazzetta del Sud, said information spread through cell phone messages contributed to Socialist candidate Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s election as Spanish prime minister.

“The (Jose Maria) Aznar government in Spain was unseated by a shower of telephone text messages, an alternative to the traditional print media, which was initially repeating the government line that the train bombings should be blamed on Basque terrorism instead of al-Qaida,” Calarco said.

The bombings since have been blamed on an alleged Moroccan-based Islamic extremist cell with possible links to al-Qaida.

Zapatero’s Socialist Party was accused of calling a massive rally in Madrid the night before the March 14 elections on short notice by having people spread the word through cell phone messages.

“This is a communications circuit very difficult to control but easy to manipulate because it’s as if every citizen had a printing press at home,” Ramirez said. “And whoever wants to insert himself into the chain can make an exponential effect during crises.

“It can be ephemeral, but in Spain it had a great effect.”

Italy has one of the lowest newspaper paid circulations in the industrialized world. One Italian in 10 buys a newspaper, compared with one of every three Japanese.

A four-year program involving 750,000 students aged 14 to 19 has made some headway, with 19,500 teachers using newspapers in the classroom. The program is funded by Italian banks and media outlets.

But the students participating in a round-table discussion criticized the newspaper publishers and editors for using arcane language, rehashing crime stories already seen on television and wasting space by reporting on reality TV shows.

They said free tabloids, which comprise about 1 million of Italy’s total newspaper circulation of 7 million, were making headway against mainstream newspapers because of their direct approach and brief stories.

The convention, organized by the Permanent Observatory for Youth and Publishers, also heard how the American media was fighting stagnant circulation with new techniques.

The Los Angeles Times, said publisher and president John Puerner, has started publishing a Spanish daily, Hoy, directed at the city’s Hispanic youth in a bid to bring those readers to the Times as they get older.

The Times also launched “multiple touch points” for younger readers through entertainment and outdoor sections, Web links, book reading festivals and newspaper donations to high schools by subscribers.

Lachlan Murdoch, deputy chief operating officer of News Corp., owner of the New York Post, said the drop in news readership “is indeed an emergency.” But he said the company was making some progress, especially in Australia, with newspapers in education programs, special kits on elections and high school sports results.

The group also recently started an extreme sports television channel for young men.

European publishers said they made circulation gains with special sections written by young people and by offering dictionaries, contests, classic books and CDs with daily newspapers.

The Observatory also released a study by the pollster Eurisko showing that the use of newspapers in the classroom boosted students’ opinions of the media.

Copyright © 2004 Ziff Davis Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally appearing in eWEEK.

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