“The chief business of the American people is business.” So it was back in 1925 when President Calvin Coolidge offered that now famous aphorism about America’s fevered, overreaching economy in the roaring 1920’s. Coolidge didn’t foresee the coming crash and depression, nor could he possibly have foreseen the degree to which the American business acumen he so admired would come to dominate a global economy by the end of the century.
As we prepare to enter the 21st Century, we live in the age of “Transcendent Capitalism.” Competing systems of controlled economies are in disrepute and full flight, vanquished by that particularly American combination of capital investment, free markets and representative democracy. The United States is enjoying booming equity markets and a robust economy that—despite serious income and wealth inequities—have made fervent believers of a citizenry now invested as never before in stocks and bonds.
Earlier in this decade, there was even a burgeoning faith that capitalism alone could solve all ills: The free market system, left unfettered, could feed the poor, shelter the homeless, and provide cheap and easy health care for all. That radical notion is waning, though, and the pendulum is swinging back to a more moderate construct that views American market-based business as a partner with government and public trust institutions—universities, philanthropies, newspapers, etc.—in shaping a strong, equitable society.
From Calvin Coolidge’s time to today, newspapers have experienced the same kind of transforming journey that American society has. Beginning as family-owned, community-oriented enterprises in which the notion of journalism as public trust predominated over commercial concerns, newspapers have arrived at the end of this century in a very tough spot. Challenged by dramatic technological change that now threatens its readership and advertising markets, the newspaper business has also been transformed from its family- and community-oriented roots into a corporate-conglomerate environment. Today, most newspapers are part of large, publicly traded companies that are paying more attention to profit margins and shareholder value than they do to the public trust responsibilities of journalism.
To be fair, many of these corporations have limited choices. They exist in a world in which large, institutional investors call the shots, driving companies to keep posting ever-higher quarterly returns in order to push share prices up. Executives of public companies cannot ignore these pressures. To make things even tougher, the Internet, electronic new media, and technological change threaten to wrench circulation and marketing dollars away from newspapers. At best, this is a besieged business; at worst, a declining industry on its way out.
So, what is to be done to protect journalism? After all, this is a public trust that is canonized in the First Amendment and, more than ever, underpins a functioning democracy.
The responsibility, I believe, lies with newspaper journalists themselves. If the newspaper business is to survive in a form that supports—perhaps even champions—public trust journalism, the newsroom must be willing to fight for its values. Here, on the cusp of the millennium, are two suggestions for the profession:
Understand the Business Side
For decades, newspaper journalists have foolishly scorned business and businessmen. They have, until recent years, grossly undervalued the importance of business news (and the degree to which newspapers can own the franchise on coverage of business). And they often have been scornful of the business side’s values and objectives. Such arrogant naiveté is unacceptable. Journalists must understand that business news is at least as important today as government news; and they must accept that—in this age of “Transcendent Capitalism”—the business goals of the company will be treated as seriously as the journalistic goals. Realism—not idealistic self-righteousness—is what the newsroom needs today.
Speak Up for Journalism
Drop the “our-work-speaks-for-itself,” ivory tower hauteur and come out fighting for your profession and its values. The public trust function of newspaper journalism is essential to democracy, but the newsroom is almost always too reticent to put that point forward. The public is willing and able to understand the special value of journalism. And business leaders can be made more responsive to the need for newspapers to fulfill their public trust. After all, they often have been in the past. But it won’t happen without a powerful rededication to those values and a strong public conversation—led by the newsroom—about their importance and their special standing in America under the First Amendment.
The business of America is business…and a lot more: It is justice, equality, freedom and democratic decision-making. And it is all completely dependent on the role of a free and independent press. Our work cannot speak for itself any longer; we must speak for it. The Committee of Concerned Journalists is proposing a declaration of shared purpose, including the principles of journalism and the responsibilities of the journalist. This declaration should catalyze a great debate in the newsrooms of America about how we will fight for our values.
Maxwell King was Editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1990 until 1998. He is now Executive Director of the Heinz Endowments, a major charitable foundation.