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Editor’s NotebookEditor's Notebook: The news-media credibility gap (1990s-style)

Editor’s Notebook: The news-media credibility gap (1990s-style)

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Of the many things coming out of my closets in preparation for a home sale, out popped a special edition of the Myrtle Beach Sun News newspaper from back in September 1995.

Li’l Scotty was one of four members of the newsroom staff that month to trek to Atlanta for a confab of news personnel from the various newspapers of the Knight Ridder chain (R.I.P.).

[For the record, the others were photo editor Charles Slate, features editor Mona Prufer and assistant to the editor Bill Willis. If any of them have set up Google alerts on themselves and get notification of this item, howdy!]

The special section that we produced for that confab focused on the fact that the Sun News had incredible market penetration (there is a Bill Clinton joke in there but let’s leave that in the 1990s where it belongs). Among those who lived in the Grand Strand of South Carolina, 68 percent reported reading the newspaper in the preceding day, while 80 percent read it at least once in the preceding week.


Those were off-the-charts numbers, although as the special section pointed out, they only accounted for permanent residents; the millions and millions of Myrtle Beach tourists tended not to purchase the paper, with the exception of golfers. I’m going out on a limb here, but they may have been searching for specials from the local gentlemen’s establishments that made their home in Myrtle Beach.

This is all a long-winded set-up to the fact that readers seemed to be getting concerned about the Sun News in general and journalism in particular.

In a 1994 survey reported in the section, only 48 percent of respondent rated the paper “excellent” or “very good,” down from 60 percent in 1989, while the number ranking it “fair” or “poor” had risen from 13 percent to 18 percent in the same period.

“The Sun News has an ongoing problem with accuracy, at least according to the perceptions of readers,” we noted in the warts-and-all special section. “Some readers also question possible bias creeping into the news column.”

Shoulda been a wakeup call, but newspapers were dinosaurs and those who ran them didn’t see the asteroid coming. The Sun News, which at one point had the highest percentage profit margin in the Knight Ridder chain (I’m pretty sure Colombian drug cartels didn’t do as well), is more or less a shell of its one-time self, financially and staff-wise, as are many daily papers. Revenue from online made up some of the gap, but hardly all.

Yes, ever-evolving technology was the main culprit, but the credibility gap, which some readers were spotting even back then and has gotten ever more wide in the ensuing 26+ years, has a lot to do with it, too.

  • Scott McCaffrey

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