The inside scoop: What's new for newspapers?

June 23, 2010 

According to Gary Pruitt, there's reason to be hopeful for the future of newspapers.

No, Pruitt isn't a time traveler or a soothsayer. He's the CEO of the corporation that owns this newspaper and 29 other dailies.

You got that right ... the top boss. He came to visit Herald employees this week as part of a tour of all McClatchy properties.

Either he knows what he's talking about or he's putting on a really good bluff. In the words of Tri-City Herald founder Glenn C. Lee, "Time will tell."

We'll give Pruitt this much, though -- he was candid about how bad it has been. He told us that 2009 was the worst year in McClatchy's 153-year existence.

That means last year was worse financially for our company than any during the Great Depression or the Civil War. We can't say that was news to us, however.

He also told us point blank some of the mistakes the industry, and particularly our corporation, have made. He described some decisions as "painful, even harmful." No one was surprised to hear that either.

Hardly hopeful remarks, but he remains confident about the future. Newspapers, the printed kind like the one you may be holding in your hands at this moment, should be around for a long time.

Of course, "long time" in newspaper talk is relative -- we tend to think of tomorrow's deadline as a "long time" away.

To clarify, Pruitt says, "Print isn't going away for decades to come." That's a really, really long time. Of course, he had statistics and anecdotes to back it up.

For example, 31 percent of people between 18 to 34 read a printed product every day in this country -- "MTV would kill for those numbers," Pruitt said. The most recent Tri-City Herald numbers tell us we reach 53 percent of that same age group here.

Despite what you may have heard about the demise of mainstream media, we're financially sound, and people still turn to us.

But what really got us thinking was Pruitt's reminder of the newsroom's unique role in democracy.

The internet is great. But it's a gusher -- not unlike the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Once you get it started, there's just no shutoff valve ... and no filter ... and no retraction button.

And once it's on the web, those rumors become a lot more believable for a lot of people. "I read it on the internet" is the new excuse for just about everything.

But buyer beware. It is often impossible to know if anyone has verified the material that's on the internet or whether anyone is held responsible for rumors, misinformation or outright libel.

That uncertainty is working in newspapers' favor. People are turning to newspaper websites as a trusted source.

Certainly, we're guilty of sins of commission and omission -- but our mistakes are made in the context of striving to present a complete and accurate report of events.

We have plenty of detractors, and hear from them regularly, but newspaper websites dominate internet traffic in virtually every market -- usually attracting 70 percent of the audience or better.

It makes sense. Aside from credibility issues, few bloggers have the resources that a newsroom commands. There are serious journalists in the blogosphere, of course, but without newspaper reporters gathering facts and publishing first-hand accounts, few bloggers would have anything to talk about.

For all the painful changes at the nation's newspapers, no one else reports on the communities we serve with the same depth.

It takes a newsroom to cover the city council meetings, disseminate the police logs, follow the court case and file the open records requests.

Pruitt is right. The changes of the past few years have hurt, and they've made it tougher to shine a light in corners others might want to keep dark.

We'll admit, it sounded a little over-the-top when Pruitt told a roomful of newspaper people that "democracy depends on you." But the man does have a point.

There's never been a modern democracy without a free press.

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