Role of newspapers must not change

06/20/2008 12:00 AM

06/19/2008 11:00 PM

Where I work we've been downsizing for years. We've cut positions, left job openings vacant, stretched supplies, put up with equipment that breaks down from longer than expected use, worked longer hours and, sigh, outsourced jobs to the Philippines.

But this week, we at the Observer felt the horrible pain that many other businesses in this community have felt. For the first time in my memory, we laid off people.

Cliché that it is, it's felt like a funeral around here. There have been tears and hugs and sadness. Family members have been suddenly ripped away, and it doesn't seem fair or right.

Still, this move wasn't unexpected. We saw it happening at the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal. So we knew what was headed our way.

Realities set in

On these pages Tuesday, Observer Publisher Ann Caulkins explained the realities that led the Observer and our parent company McClatchy to make staff cuts. A sluggish economy – it feels like a recession to me – coupled with an evolving and challenging newspaper industry has brought in less advertising revenue (a newspaper's main source of income) and less profit.

For publicly traded newspapers, that's not good news. The demons of Wall Street (I'm an opinion writer so I get to call them demons) have a narrowly focused view of what's viable and the profit margins of newspapers these days come up short. So our stock price is down, and some shareholders aren't happy.

I'm a shareholder too. So I can see both sides. Sort of.

I'm not a Luddite on this. Change is part of my profession, and a lot of it is for the good. As news consumption habits – and consumers' news needs – evolve, so must newspapers. Polls show news consumers under 30 have already staked out a preference for the Internet. For younger people, the Web is already their main source for political news.

Including Web sites, newspapers still get more “eyes” on the product than ever before. But in four years the top U.S. papers collectively lost about 1.4 million copies in daily circulation.

In that current atmosphere, we at newspapers are cost-cutting and down-sizing to help reposition ourselves for the future. But I fear that what we may lose, in addition to the first-rate colleagues who are casualties of the changes, will be an erosion of important information that helps all of us make informed decisions. That's a loss you may come to mourn too.

I've had a lot of time to think deeply about this issue over the last few months. I was Batten Professor of Public Policy at Davidson College the past semester. My course was called, “Ink, images and influence: The role of media in our democracy.”

Essential function

I believe the news media is an essential part of a functioning democracy. We prod and poke through data, interview sometimes reluctant subjects and stay late at meetings so you'll know that mortgage companies are ripping you off, or that toys from China could harm your children, or that military veterans are getting shoddy health care.

Last night, I attended a community meeting where the role of the media in race and ethnicity issues was discussed. I was intrigued in hearing some panelists note that they didn't feel their companies had any obligation or responsibility to the community. They said they personally might feel responsibilities but the obligations of their businesses were to the good of the business and their stockholders.

I understand the business imperative – even more so this week. Still, I was happy to hear Caulkins, the Observer's publisher, acknowledge an obligation of the Observer to provide news and other information in ways that help readers make informed choices about their lives. Audience members got a chance to hear that she continues to be passionate about that role too.

There are people who don't think newspapers – or the media generally – are that valuable. They think we're no more than biased, propaganda-mongers.

Still, just think of what would be lost without journalists who doggedly pursued the truth and presented it to you. Think of Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, the Civil Rights Movement.

Newspapers will change, but the vital role they play in seeking truth and providing information that helps us choose better and live better must not. All of us must vigorously fight that change.

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