Last Call at the ASNE Saloon
By John Carroll
John Carroll left his role as editor of the Los Angeles Times in 2005 and is Knight Visiting Lecturer at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics
and Public Policy at Harvard
University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. When he spoke to the American Society of Newspaper Editors
convention in Seattle Wednesday, he described his comments as "an interim report
-- a collection of significant fragments" as he stands back an observes
news media today. Here are excerpts from his speech, reprinted with permission. (Full text available here and here, and a PDF version of the speech can be found here.)
Yesterday was a glorious spring day here in Seattle, and we heard from Gary Pruitt and Dean Singleton, who are spending billions of dollars to buy up newspapers. The skies were sunny, and so were their forecasts.
Today, the clouds have rolled in -- and, appropriately, so have I, bearing antidotes to yesterday's glad tidings. [...]
journalist believes that he or she works, ultimately, for the reader --
not for the editor, or for the publisher, or for the corporation, or
for those opaque financial institutions that hold the stock. We all
know journalists who have lost their jobs on principle. They have
refused to kill important stories, or to write glowingly about
politicians or advertisers who don't deserve it. They have done this
because their first loyalty is to the reader. Whole
newsrooms, on occasion, have taken the same principled stand. [...]
We work, however, within large organizations that hold a different
view of duty. Our corporate superiors are sometimes genuinely perplexed
to find people in their midst who do not feel beholden, first and
foremost, to the shareholder. [...]
Our mission is more daunting than that of our predecessors. It is not merely to produce
good stories. It is not merely to save our newspapers. It is -- and this
may sound grandiose -- to save journalism itself. It is to ensure the
existence, long into the future, of a large, independent, principled,
questioning, deep-digging cadre of journalists in America, regardless
of what happens to our newspapers.
You and I know it won't be easy. [...]
It was heartening when McClatchy emerged victorious in the bidding for Knight Ridder.
McClatchy's CEO, Gary Pruitt, bases much of his strategy on good
journalism and on optimism about the electronic future. This is a plan
we can all understand. Whether it will actually work under the new
economics of our business is not known. We should all be lighting
candles for McClatchy.
We should be lighting candles, too, for the
families that control The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. In difficult times, they have persisted in
upholding traditions of journalistic excellence. [...]
Who are the owners today? Have you ever actually met one?
order to track down the owners, you've got to knock on doors at such
places as Private Capital Management of Naples, Fla., or Ariel
Capital Management of Chicago or Southeastern Asset Management of
If you succeed in getting past the receptionist, you'll find a scene not unlike a newsroom
-- people talking on phones or tapping away at computers. These are
highly motivated people -- intelligent people working in a disciplined
fashion. Much of their work, unlike ours, is mathematical. [...]
Like journalists, these fund managers are seekers, trying to find out
things before their competitors do. They monitor hundreds, perhaps
thousands, of companies... All are given equal consideration;
everything depends on the numbers. [...]
I have edited newspapers in three cities --
Lexington, Baltimore and Los Angeles -- and in all three cities I'm
seeing a new phenomenon: local people seeking to buy the paper back
from the corporations. I've spoken with several of them. These are
serious people -- sophisticated people with real money.
corporate owners, these people talk about the importance of the paper
to the community. They talk about restoring its pride. They talk about
investing in journalism, especially in local coverage. They see the
newspaper as a fallen angel, and they say they'd be willing to accept a
lower financial return, which would allow the paper to breathe again.
Yes, it seems too much to hope for. [...]
But to be editor of a newspaper is still a privilege and often a joy.
may be of some comfort to remember that we are not alone. Recently I
read an article by a medical doctor whose complaint about corporate
medicine echoed ours about corporate journalism. This doctor resented
the assembly-line discipline of the seven-minute patient visit. And he
deplored the corporate tendency to speak of patients as "customers."
To a principled doctor, the patient is not just some stranger who
pays money for seven minutes of service. [...] I have every confidence
that, over time, the doctors will prevail, and the patient
will remain the patient. The doctors will prevail because they have a clear and enduring set of values.
We journalists have a set of values, too, but ours are newer and,
unfortunately, much fuzzier. The journalist's equivalent of the patient
is the reader, or the public. But does the public believe that? [...]
It is important for us to explain to the public why journalism -- real
journalism, practiced in good faith -- is absolutely essential to a
self-governing nation. This is a cause that is larger than us and
larger than our newspapers. It gives meaning to our labors in a
Yes, it is possible that our newspapers will be further diminished,
perhaps even lost altogether. And yes, it is even possible that the
great bartender at the ASNE saloon will, someday, sound last call. If
that day comes, let it never be said that we meekly drank up and walked