In a realistic admission in the spring that it would take time — perhaps years — for McClatchy Company to regain its financial momentum after it acquired Knight Ridder, Gary Pruitt, the company’s president, CEO and chairman said, “I’ll take long-term gain over short-term decline.” What made his words significant is his assurance that time would be available.

In today’s Wall Street, a $4.5 billion deal is less than routine. Soap makers, coat hanger companies, tomato canners attract more buyers and money, if not more attention, than did the nation’s second largest newspaper publisher when it was forced by a group of restless investors to put itself on the auction block. So in most contexts, Pruitt’s words were unremarkable. But for journalists at the 20 newspapers to be retained by McClatchy they were a jolt of encouragement and, for those at the dozen to be sold, they contained at least a glimmer of hope. It had been years since any corporate person with sway over their journalistic efforts had expressed a commitment to more than short-term financial results.

And for the U.S. newspaper industry caught in a maelstrom of disruptive technology and financial stress, Pruitt’s declaration offered a respite, if only of the briefest sort. For that short moment, it was possible to imagine a world beyond the turbulence that threatens to destroy the newspaper journalism upon which democracy depends.

Newspaper Journalism

During the 300 years of their history, American newspapers gradually developed the standards, practices and layered processes that make newspaper journalism the core of the public affairs information that sustains democracy. And owners of newspapers discovered early that they could make good money publishing them. For some, that was enough. Other owners, differently motivated, believed that publishing newspapers was an important public service, and the fact that good money could be made doing it only made the process that much more rewarding. Well into the 20th century, newspapers, with owners of both sorts, held a virtual monopoly on mass communication of information, but this situation was not to last. As other methods of telling news emerged — radio, broadcast television, 24-hour cable news, the Internet — each brought fresh predictions that newspapers were doomed.

Those predictions have not come about, but now greed and short-term thinking are the enemies of newspapers’ survival — and, if we are not careful, newspaper journalism. If newspaper journalism withers away because those who own papers do not understand and appreciate its intrinsic and crucial strengths and its role in democracy, much more will be gone than simply one particular and traditional way of telling news.

Democracy can exist without newspapers, but it cannot exist without newspaper journalism and the unique attributes it brings to its synergy with democracy. Those include:

  • Depth of reporting based on multiple sourcing
  • Professional objectivity — that is, avoiding a particularistic voice
  • Accountability
  • A layered process of fact-checking and editing
  • Community coherence — that is, a clear concept of who is being served and why
  • Recognition of the responsibilities inherent in journalism’s agenda-setting role
  • Ethical underpinnings, including distinguishing between fact and opinion.

Migrating newspaper journalism onto new platforms will, however, require time and experimentation opportunities that are not overwhelmed by the pressure for constant bottom-line improvement on an already robust base of 20-and-up percent operating return. And it will require dedicated people acting bravely.

When (not, pray, if) newspaper journalism is successfully transferred to whatever technologies emerge, who will have been the heroes?

Journalism’s Heroes

The heroes in this transition will be publishers and corporate officers and board members and, yes, even shareholders who realized that public service journalism was in trouble, is the priority outweighing all others, and who were willing to sacrifice short-term profits to sustain it. Making a successful transition from print to digital will be a marathon run requiring time and oxygen supply, and only the money people can ensure those.

They will be reporters flexible enough to embrace the new ways of convergence but firm enough not to succumb to the journalistic shortcuts or fall into the traps of self-indulgence and personal aggrandizement that convergence technology so beguilingly offers. The essential values that drive newspaper journalism cannot be a cloak that is donned only in newspaper newsrooms and laid aside in digital environments. The standards and motivations must be migrated along with the facts and words and personalities. That requires reporters to exercise both personal restraint and the discipline not to let the pressure of round-the-clock deadlines corrupt the reporting. Some early convergence experience indicates that otherwise solid reporters are drawn to act differently on a Weblog or Webcast. That is deadly.

They will be editors who insist upon that constancy and resist the enormous internal pressures to dilute the hard-news content that is the historic core of the newspaper journalism franchise. These heroes will not crumble under the assault from outsiders who equated aggressive reporting with a lack of patriotism, nor will they heed the taunts of surrendering insiders who declare the end of what they derisively call “eat your spinach journalism” in favor of more Britney and Katie, cat columns and Snoop Dogg, and ill-informed rhetoric posing as public conversation.

They will be economists and lawyers who fashioned innovative ownership models to move public service journalism beyond the reach of Wall Street’s insistence upon ever-increasing profits without, perversely, making it subject to even more threatening political pressures inherent in tax and public policy concessions implicit in some models.

They will be public-minded nonjournalists who, taking advantage of the Web’s ready and cheap access, used blogs and other techniques for more than blustering: nongovernmental organizations, foundations and even affinity groups that, though admittedly mission-driven, unearthed and circulated hard data not readily within reach of journalists but verifiable by them.

And, bless their hearts, they will be bloggers who, by thinking of the odd question or snagging contradictory information out of the rushing stream of data they watch, enriched the public conversation and expanded the necessarily limited reach of professional journalists.

Will Newspaper Journalism Survive?

Can newspaper journalism survive the eventual passing of newspapers themselves? Will the substance provided by newspaper journalism, even with all its faults, be present in the dominant new forms of communication just over the horizon?

If newspaper companies continue to sublimate their obligations to public service and democracy to ever-increasing profit considerations, the answer is most certainly “no.” And if serious journalism continues to be replaced by news-as-entertainment, the answer is almost certainly “no.”

For newspapers driven by the bottom line, people are seen as customers to be wooed rather than citizens to be helped, and the nation is seen as an audience to be accumulated and tallied rather than a democracy to be cherished and sustained.

The great irony is that in America no authority can dictate what newspapers ought to do. This is a freedom that stems from, and is essential to, democracy. The democracy that sustains journalism is itself sustained by responsible public service journalism. Newspaper owners and journalists who fail to understand the connection and act as if it matters will not only destroy themselves but democracy itself.

Those with the courage to stay in the marathon ahead will be not merely survivors but heroes.

Davis “Buzz” Merritt is the author of “Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy at Risk,” published by Amacom in 2005. He wrote the book after he retired from Knight Ridder in January 1999. He worked in newspaper journalism for 46 years, 42 of them with Knight Ridder.

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