Early in this century it became obvious that the traditional business model of newspapers was being dismantled by the digital revolution; that the time was coming when news and advertising would no longer be provided on dead trees.
That was not good news for people in the newspaper business, of course, and also upset the habits of millions of people over 30 years old who grew up with convenient access to good newspapers.
During most of the previous century, the largest newspaper companies seemed impregnable, but the steady consolidation into large, publicly held chains that made them seem strong actually weakened their ability to respond to the digital challenge. That was because Wall Street demanded ever-rising profits at the very time the companies needed to experiment and invest heavily in digital technologies.
The same dynamic was disrupting many businesses, but newspapers were never just another business, like carpet-making or retailing. Newspapers were the primary source of the shared information necessary to help people answer democracy’s core question: What shall we do? The journalism that newspapers traditionally provide and self-government are fully interdependent; one cannot exist without the other.
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The business adjustments that newspaper companies felt they had to make in the face of the digital storm and profit pressures were often at the expense of the journalism, and by 2006, I wrote in a book titled “Knightfall” that the primary issue facing democracy was whether the journalism practiced in newspapers’ best days could be migrated to the digital world.
It’s a rough passage, but many newspaper companies are transforming themselves into viable digital platforms. Most of the information-hungry 30-somethings of the 21st century have never read newspapers regularly, but, as with their predecessors, they need shared information on which to base the decisions necessary for self-governance.
The passage of traditional journalism from print to digital is made even rougher by the spread of new media dealing in alternative facts designed to accomplish specific ideological objectives, including framing traditional journalists as “enemies of the people.”
It was against this roiling background that I recently had occasion to share some thoughts with members of the Kansas Press Association at its annual banquet.
After retiring 18 years ago, except for two books and occasional columns like this one, I deliberately stayed away from newsrooms and the details of the newspaper business. I have watched the fiscal turmoil and ideological challenges from a distance, but with full attention. So as an elder of the journalistic tribe, I assumed the people practicing their craft in today’s difficult atmosphere might need a bit of encouragement, a Churchillian “never give in” paragraph or two.
I was wrong.
The energy, optimism and deserved pride of accomplishment surging through the banquet hall was extraordinary. The remaining veteran editors have adopted and the younger ones are mastering the techniques of delivering information in new ways while retaining journalism’s fundamental mission: find out what’s going on and tell people about it professionally and fearlessly.
Long-time readers wistful about print journalism and fearful of its demise and the people whose goal is to demean and destroy traditional independent journalism need to understand something: The end of print newspapers will not be the end of independent journalism and thus the end of democracy. The people in that ballroom are not going away; nor is truth.
Davis Merritt, a Wichita journalist and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.