I offer this confession of faith: I believe in newspapers.
And by newspapers, I mean particularly those physical objects produced in huge quantity through some nearly magical process in the middle of the night and delivered before daybreak to millions of homes and businesses where they are eagerly received.
I put great value on our electronic endeavors, but let’s be clear-eyed about them. At most American newspapers, they draw heavily upon the resources—financial, human and journalistic—of the business that our smug critics like to deride as “mature,” or “legacy,” or “dying.”
“Nobody reads newspapers anymore.” You hear that line so often that even some of our most loyal fans start to feel a little sheepish that they still want the ink-on-paper version. “I know I’m in the minority,” they sometimes tell me.
Except they are not in the minority. According to the Pew Research Center, more than half of all newspaper readers rely entirely on the printed version. More than 80 percent of newspaper consumers have print as part of their mix.
I believe in newspapers for their power to connect merchants with customers. Here in the Tampa Bay area, the No. 1 Ford dealer sells as many vehicles as the next three Ford dealers put together. One secret? He buys full pages of advertising in the local newspapers every day.
Most of all, I believe in newspapers as a force for social good. For all the economic strain upon us, newspapers still break more ground, reveal more scandals and right more wrongs than any other branch of the news media.
If not for us, the world would be a different, darker place.
For nine years, I had the exquisite privilege of serving on the Pulitzer Prize board. For two days every April, we would gather at Columbia University in New York to decide the prizes. Every year, I would leave that meeting with two reactions.
First, it is really hard to win a Pulitzer Prize. I joined the board in 2006, and during the next nine years, newspaper revenues fell steadily and sometimes steeply. And yet, the quality of the finalists never declined.
Second, thank God for newspapers. It is hard to imagine any other branch of the news media taking up the kind of difficult, expensive and painstaking work that newspapers are still willing to do.
The best Pulitzer of all is the gold medal for Public Service.
This year it went to the Post and Courier in Charleston, for revealing why South Carolina has the highest rate in the country of women killed by their husbands and boyfriends. In South Carolina, you can go to jail longer for beating your dog than for beating your wife.
At Harvard University, the Goldsmith Prizes for investigative reporting are open to all comers. This year, there were more than 100 entries from television, radio, magazines—and newspapers.
The winner was the Miami Herald, for showing how child welfare officials left children with parents that the state knew were unfit, rather than take the kids into state custody. The Herald found 477 children who died after officials had at least one encounter with their families. One little girl was killed by her mother’s pet python.
If not for the Miami Herald, who tells her story?
Make no mistake, our newspaper business is harder than it used to be. We know well the pain of this last decade. Some of our critics chortle that our business struggles show that our day has passed, that we are old news.
Those people are confused. Difficulty is one question. Value is a different matter entirely. Vital endeavors are usually difficult. To the contrary, nothing important is ever easy.
Without newspapers, another little girl dies. Another wife gets a beating. I believe in newspapers because I see nothing on the horizon that could begin to fill the void that we would leave.
Our customers are counting on us. Our communities are counting on us. Our country is counting on us—to persevere and to prevail.
Paul Tash is chairman and CEO of the Tampa Bay Times. This edited article is reprinted with permission. The original version (bit.ly/1dX2CJA) was given as a speech at the Metro Production Conference.