Newspapers still are vital missions

November 20, 2005|By LEONARD PITTS JR.

WASHINGTON -- It was the week after the storm and Biloxi, Miss., was a wilderness.

James Bates, a photographer for the Sun Herald newspaper, had agreed to show me around but first he had to provision the car with emergency supplies. I don't remember what all he crammed into his backseat. I do remember what sat on top: a stack of newspapers.

Biloxi was cut off from the world, so the paper was a lifeline. Mr. Bates told me people were amazingly grateful when you gave them one. Small wonder. In doing so, you gave them information. You also you gave them human society. You made them less alone.

I find myself returning to that post-Katrina episode a lot lately as people in the newspaper business try to make me feel better about working in the newspaper business. Actually, it's not just me they seek to encourage, but all of us who are employed by the 32 papers in the Knight Ridder chain.

As you may have seen on the business page, three groups of shareholders are pushing the KR board of directors to put the nation's second-largest newspaper company up for sale. This, because stock prices continue to slip despite aggressive cost-cutting measures. The shareholder revolt has created uncertainty in KR newsrooms and, I would wager, newspaper newsrooms around the country.

This is an uncertain time in the newspaper business. Between the lies of Jack Kelley and Jayson Blair, the drumbeat accusations of liberal or conservative bias, the new figures showing that readership continues to erode like beaches and an abiding sense that today's young adults lack the time and inclination to read news printed on dead trees, newsroom morale is at less than an all-time high.

And the hits just keep on coming. In response to the shareholder pressure, Knight Ridder announced this week that it would explore all its options.

So you can understand the effort to rally the troops. On Sunday, Amanda Bennett, editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer, a KR paper, published a column attacking the "common wisdom" that newspapers are dying because of competition from television (the Philly papers and their Web sites, she wrote, reach more people than the newscasts on the top three local TV stations combined), from radio (a story in the paper reaches more people than one broadcast in drive-time on all 83 Philly stations combined) or from the Internet ("We are the Internet," wrote Ms. Bennett, noting that her paper reaches more people online than any other local site).

In response, Miami Herald Managing Editor Judy Miller (not to be confused with the ex-New York Times reporter of the same name) issued an interoffice e-mail to her troops making essentially the same points about her paper's influence.

Given all that and that the newspapers still routinely return profits of 20 percent, you have to wonder: from whence the woe? Why is revenue down? Why the cuts in staffing and benefits? Why do investors circle this industry like vultures?

I guess there are reasons. I'm just saying I don't understand them. I doubt I ever will.

I'm also saying this: Thank you for the pep talk, but me, I don't need it. Years before I ever drew a paycheck in this industry I was convinced that newspapers - and, more broadly, the news - are not a business. They are a mission - a vital, irreducible mission.

I guess that's why my thoughts keep returning to that parking lot in Biloxi. Inside the damaged building, dozens of journalists, volunteers from all over the country and locals who had just lost loved ones and homes in the storm were subsisting on cheese and canned ham, wearing donated clothes, working the phones, designing pages ... putting out the paper. A bundle of which James Bates threw into the car so we could give them to people we met, people who needed them.

It was a pep talk that will last me a lifetime.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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