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GROAN! Another family-owned newspaper has been absorbed, has sold out its local identity. The Los Angeles Times, ranked fourth best in the country by the Columbia Journalism Review, has been bought by the Chicago Tribune, ranked sixth, once known as the voice of Col. Robert R. McCormick, one of the most conservative men in America, but in recent years more even-handed.

The controlling members of the Times’ Chandler family have recently been interested not in journalism but in the value of their stock; so they brought in a cereal exec as CEO who sold off New York Newsday and broke the “sacred wall” between the business and editorial offices. Stock profits went up, and the L.A. Times reputation went down, so there was a rough justice in its merger. But, like the merger of AOL and Time Warner and ABC’s absorption by Disney -- with Diane Sawyer, in February, devoting a nice chunk of “Good Morning America” news time to interview a character called the “Pet.com Sock Puppet,” the mascot of the Disney-owned www.pets.com pets supply company -- it’s a loss.

Thus two media viruses -- the decline in the number of individual news voices and the domination of news by marketing -- meet and infect one another. GROAN again!

How are we going to get out of this mess? Some suggest that what appears to be journalism’s competitor is really its friend. The future belongs to the Internet, to the extension of newspapers onto their Web sites.

Certainly the journalism world has established a solid beachhead in cyberspace. A recent survey of journalists says that 73 percent of respondents go online at least once a day, more for research than for e-mail, compared to 48 percent in 1998. They count on the Web sites of newspapers around the world, and Web sites organize and condense those other Web sites to flesh out their own stories.

But that speaks more to the use journalists are making of the Web to produce stories. How are they using the Web to present stories, and is the Internet in fact contributing to a harder-hitting, more diverse form of journalism?

For several weeks I have poked around the Web sites, looked at the online magazines Slate and Salon in particular, to see what they might add to reading the daily papers.

A few years ago Michael Kinsley left The New Republic and “Crossfire” at Bill Gates’ invitation to start Slate as the Microsoft-sponsored online magazine. Its innovation was to update the content at any time, making it a cross between a weekly magazine and a daily paper. For a while they tried charging readers $15 a year but learned that Web readers are not going to pay to read. In format it’s part digest (it tells us what’s in the newspapers) and part opinion magazine, a New Republic lite, with more and shorter pieces and more reader feedback, as if we’re all involved in a dialogue.

I couldn’t help noticing Catholic items. On Sunday, March 12, Slate writer Jack Shafer was quick to respond to Andrew Sullivan’s column in that morning’s New York Times magazine on anti-Catholic bigotry. If Gore had consorted with anti-Semites or anti-blacks the way Bush had pandered to Bob Jones University, said Sullivan, the establishment would have forced Gore into a groveling apology. Anti-Catholicism, however, is tolerated. Not so, says Slate’s Shafer: Anti-Catholicism is actually based not on intolerance but on the Catholic church’s history of evil deeds. This conversation-starter is followed by four replies from readers.

Salon’s Catholic item is even lower. Its gossip columnist quotes a Los Angeles Magazine interview with an actor named Rupert Everett. Rupert, it seems, is still getting over his Catholic boarding school guilt. Says columnist Amy Reiter, “And then there’s transubstantiation. Everett believes that whole Eucharist and wine turning into the body and blood of Christ thing is a crock.” Or, in Rupert’s own words, “I think that’s just f----g with our head.”

So much for religion.

A more constructive controversy was Slate’s James Fallows’ critique of Newsweek’s list of the 100 Best High Schools (March 13). Since Fallows once edited U.S. News and World Report, which ranks colleges, he should know his stuff. He calls the list an “embarrassment” because it is based on the number of Advanced Placement tests taken in each school, rather than the courses or scores. Newsweek writer Jay Matthews’ long reply argues that his list evaluates schools by the level of challenge they offer the greatest number of students, including those who will take the course and test even though they don’t do well. He cites a study of 13,000 students showing that “the best predictor of college completion was not high school grades or test scores, but the rigor of the high school courses on the transcript.”

What about politics? For a week Slate printed long conversations among the six editors of the Texas Monthly trying to answer the question, “Who is George W. Bush?” They wandered around for 17 pages without answering what I wanted to know: the truth about his education record as governor.

The April 10 issue of New Republic had the answer the papers and news weeklies should have published months ago: Test scores among Texas students are higher than the national average because the Texas test (Texas Assessment of Academic Skills) is easier than the other national tests. Tests that are comparable across state lines register no improvement in Texas students.

Moreover, teachers in Texas spend eight to 10 hours a week in rote drill for the tests. As a result the students can write only standard five-sentence paragraph essays, can read only short test-like passages, and can’t get through a novel two years below grade level. If the six editors of Texas Monthly knew any of that, you couldn’t tell it from their contributions to Slate.

Media critic Danny Schechter of mediachannel.org, in a current evaluation of online news, concludes that it is not very diverse, that the top 10 commercial sites, like Yahoo and AOL, get their international news from AP and Reuters, and there’s little difference between the two. News from rich countries focuses on strong leaders, business, and cultural pursuits; from poor countries on violence, disasters and corruption. To run their items first, they skimp on research. He recommends, as I do, “BBC Online,” with its 170 staff members and original well-researched stories.

In short, with a few exceptions, online journalism lives off regular journalism, causes back pain and eye strain, and takes longer to read than three newspapers, which I can clip and save, and which will give me 10 stories on a two-page spread.

Which brings me to my wild idea. What we need is another national daily newspaper to compete for excellence with The New York Times. The L.A. Times experimented with an East Coast edition some years ago. Maybe the Chicago Tribune will start to think really big, combine with its L.A. resources to give us the Western Tribune. Sure, it would represent the same establishment center, but the challenge to be different might catch someone’s imagination. As Charles Foster Kane says so well: “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.”

Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is NCR’s media critic.

National Catholic Reporter, May 5, 2000