Tuesday, February 07, 2006

As essential as the ballot

I've written elsewhere that the forced tender of Knight Ridder newspapers for sale should be of concern among civic-minded Americans everywhere. The news -- at its best subtle, complex and sometimes deep -- is as essential to a self-governing people as the ballot box. Yet many of the scenarios being considered for a new owner of Knight Ridder would require serious cuts in the staffs that have upheld John Knight's tradition of quality journalism in 32 cities.

Today I was shown a letter that Merrett Stierheim, the former Miami-Dade County manager and retired school superintendent, wrote to Bruce Sherman, the investment manager who had the most to do with forcing Knight Ridder to put itself on the auction block. Stierheim knows what a Knight Ridder paper can do because he was in the glare of The Miami Herald's spotlight for more than 20 years. It wasn't always pleasant for him, if I remember correctly. Here's how he lectured Sherman:
I am deeply troubled by the relentless squeezing and cost-cuttiing with insufficient concern for the fundamental responsibilities that go hand in hand with the sacred guarantee of "freedom of the press." Capitalism, without meaningful concern for the public and our democracy -- now corrupted from within with sickening regularity or carried to excess with no value systems other than the pursuit of the almighty dollar -- has within itself the seeds for its own destruction. Mr. Sherman, this is a serious, growing threat to our free and democratic society and to free enterprise in the long run.

The full letter ran Dec. 5, 2005 in the St. Petersburg Times.

Since you're reading a blog, you may be in the habit of getting much of your news off the Internet. I invite you to take notes for a day or two, and see just how much of the news you read there actually comes from newspapers. So far, the people who own and run practically all the news Websites are either newspapers or they are scraping their news off a newspaper site and repackaging it on their own sites. So if newspapers are dumbed down to the point that they might as well go away, where will you get your news? That is, the news that doesn't consist of weather reports and celebrity sightings?

If you're in South Florida and want to know more, there's a program at the University of Miami the morning of Feb. 10 that will ask whether some ownership model other than a public stock company could protect newsrooms from debilitating cost-cutting. I'll try to keep order as three really well-informed panelists deliver their views of reality. You can learn more from the Society of Professional Journalists' site, the second item down.

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