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Paper creates Web 'town square'

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- It's a journalist's job to ask questions, but they're usually aimed at outsiders.

At the News & Record, a 93,000-daily circulation newspaper in Greensboro, reporters and editors are asking tough questions about the paper itself.

The biggest questions: If the paper needs to change to survive, what changes should be made? What can it do, especially online, to make itself the electronic equivalent of a town square?

Seeking the answers, the paper has launched an audacious online experiment.

The News & Record's website features 11 staff-written Web journals, or blogs, including one by the editor that answers readers' questions, addresses their criticisms, and discusses how the paper is run.

That puts the paper way ahead of even much larger news organizations. The News & Record's blogs range from ''just-the-facts, ma'am," to irreverent commentary.

There's a page for reader-submitted articles, another for letters to the editor, and an online tips form. The website hosts online forums on 23 topics, including safety at a local high school, FedEx Corp.'s move to the area, and cameras at local stoplights. Traffic cams monitor local road conditions.

The site also posts up-to-date public records on property ownership, marriages, and divorce.

''When the paper's overhaul is complete, it may be a model for the sort of 21st century paper that many journalism big thinkers have been talking about, chewing over, and confabbing on for the last few years," wrote the industry-watching magazine Editor & Publisher. ''Greensboro will be the first place where this conceptually newfangled newspaper actually exists."

''It's a wonderful idea," said Phil Meyer, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. ''It's important for newspapers to try dangerous experiments."

His only reservation: The paper hasn't added any staff to work on its electronic experiment. ''I'd rather they were willing to make an investment in this."

Other papers are watching. The Houston Chronicle, The (Portland) Oregonian, (Raleigh) News & Observer, and USA Today have all called News & Record editor John Robinson to discuss what his paper is doing.

Why the interest? Declining circulation, vitriolic criticism of everything from the media's obsession with celebrity trials to its coverage of the 2004 election, plus a series of scandals involving reporters who made up facts have led to industry-wide soul-searching.

Except for a honeymoon period after Sept. 11, the percentage of people who say news organizations often report inaccurately has hovered around 56 percent, according to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.

Readership has also eroded, especially among young people. According to futureofthenewspaper.com, a project of the World Association of Newspapers, 71 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds read a newspaper in 1967. By 1999, that number had declined to 42 percent.

Lex Alexander, who is running the News & Record's ''Town Square" initiative, said he thinks no less than the paper's future is at stake.

Plenty of other papers are remaking their websites to make them more than a recap of the day's paper.

Some host outspoken political blogs, such as the Philadelphia Daily News's antiwar, anti-Bush ''Attytood," whose logo looks like a Philadelphia cheese steak.

Nj.com, the site for a group of Advance Publications papers, including The Star-Ledger of Newark, has blogs on two popular Jersey obsessions: Bruce Springsteen and ''The Sopranos."

Other sites have well-trafficked interactive forums.

The site for the Bakersfield Californian features reporters' answers to questions such as ''What's happening to the old Zody's building?" and readers' complaints about TV ads from a local furniture chain.

The Philadelphia Inquirer runs online forums with reporters, including beat writers for the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey high school sports.

Delawareonline.com, the site for The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., offers twice daily local news webcasts that don't look much different from local TV news, with lots of crime and car crashes followed by feel-good features.

The News & Record is tracking the blogs' page hits and seeing impressive numbers. Still, Robinson said he has no sense that more than 100 people are daily readers of the papers' blogs. Most of the paper's blog posts get only a handful of comments.

Still, ''as more people go to the Web, fewer of them buy the paper," Robinson said. ''You go hunting where the ducks are flying; right now they're flying on the Web."

That said, being impartial and fair is a bedrock goal of journalism, but not blogging, and the paper's journalist-bloggers are well aware of the balancing act involved. ''We can't rant," said John Nagy, the business editor, who works on the business blog along with three other staffers.

Some reporter-bloggers don't want to take a side on hot issues. After Wake Forest University basketball player Chris Paul was filmed hitting another player in the groin, News & Record sports reporter and blogger Jim Young didn't touch it.

''Because I'm not the columnist, I don't feel I can pass judgment," Young said. ''It can make our blogs less juicy than others. I'm not comfortable being opinionated one minute and objective the next."

Some of the News & Record's blogs have inspired lively debates since the paper first launched them last summer.

The education blog, launched in October, is written by two reporters who post everything from the agenda of a board of education retreat to news about a proposal that would pull $1.5 million from poor schools.

The latter post got 126 comments, including some spoofs of Dr. Seuss book titles with commentary on the district superintendent. (''Terry B. Grier, Will You Please Go Now!")

Some on the paper have their doubts about whether blogs can win over young readers.

Night cops reporter Eric Townsend, 26, who also contributes to a blog about traffic, said he's happy to post, but he thinks declining newspaper readership among the young is more a symptom of a decline in civic engagement than anything else.

''Young people don't have a sense of involvement, a sense of community," he said. ''It doesn't matter how many 'young' stories we do. I don't think blogs are the answer, either."


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