Long, long ago in a state far, far away, I was a graduate student at the University of Kansas School of Journalism. In our editing class, Dr. John Bremner, a living legend among students, asked a question on the first day.
What's the main purpose of a newspaper?
Round the room he pointed. Students replied with just what you'd expect -- high-minded, morally grounded statements: "To afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." "To print the truth." "To serve as a fourth leg of our democracy." "To keep public officials honest."
The 6-foot-5, 270-pound bearded Australian former priest was about to give up on us when he pointed at me, a Vietnam vet and the oldest person slouched in the desks:
"To make money."
"That's right," he growled in his basso profundo. "To make money. Howinhell are you going to publish a newspaper if it doesn't make enough money for you to practice all these ideals of journalism?"
It was a lucky guess on my part, not a Damascene insight. Process of elimination. If called on early, I'd have uttered one of those high-minded platitudes.
But I've obviously never forgotten the lesson.
It was brought home to me again this week in sparkling fashion. The Merced Sun-Star hosted Gary Pruitt, the CEO of McClatchy Co., which owns us. Also Senior Vice President Frank Whittaker and Vice President of Advertising Steve Bernard. They drove down from Sacramento because the Sun-Star won first place in a company-wide contest in last year's fourth quarter.
The contest reflected the present realities of the publishing industry. In most any other year, the goal would've been to post the highest percentage gain in ad revenue. Last quarter it was to record the lowest loss in revenue. And our stellar Advertising colleagues beat McClatchy's 29 other daily newspapers around the country.
Don't get me wrong. We here at the Sun-Star are still making money. McClatchy is still making money. It's just that, as with so many other corporations worldwide, costs are rising as sales are falling. We're still in the black, bottom line, but we face some big problems -- some rooted only in the publishing business, others common to nearly every industry struggling through this recession.
The point for our Mercedian audience is this: for us to prosper, you have to prosper. And vice versa. In short, we are partners in navigating these treacherous economic shoals together. We don't like seeing empty big-box stores any more than you do. We don't like seeing folks out of work. We don't like layoffs -- and McClatchy last year had to resort to that survival tactic twice for the first time ever in its 152-year history.
So here's some good news for you and for us. The visit by our VIPs not only raised our morale. It inspired us to work even harder and smarter to remain your best source of information, in print and online. And we couldn't have done it without you, our audience. You read us. You buy our ads. You pay for a subscription. You react to us. So thanks. Many thanks.
Pruitt, regarded as the smartest newspaper executive in America, said the home-office congratulations and tri-tip lunch near our printing presses showed that we here know how "to redefine what success means in a recession....Success means just improving the trend."
He told us that "what you do at the Merced Sun-Star counts in this community -- you provide a watchdog role in this community."
Over the five years McClatchy has owned the Sun-Star, "(your) solid and fearless journalism has proved you were playing way above your head. ... With the talent, energy and spirit of the people in this room, I don't think you can be beaten."
Whittaker, an urbane and experienced pro, noted the "delicious irony" of McClatchy's smallest newspaper posting the best results nationwide.
"It was a blowout," he added. "In every possible way, you've improved your operations. You are a very big part of McClatchy's success in California."
Newspeople are notoriously skeptical, sometimes slipping into outright cynicism. We've seen friends and colleagues of many years at this company and others endure a "cake day," as one of our colleagues calls it, when a layoff is announced. So we were all listening for any false notes. We were tuned in for any vibe that didn't ring true.
Instead, Pruitt, Whittaker and Bernard came across as true believers in McClatchy's ability to ride out this storm. The worse may be yet to come. There may be more trenches before there are peaks. But our leadership up the ladder seems committed to help guide us through.
Some of you will view this conclusion as whistling past the graveyard or, worse, kissing ass. It is neither. It's my judgment, first spoken decades ago in John Bremner's hot prairie classroom, that the main purpose of a newspaper -- or now, a media company -- is to make money.
And we are making money. And we'll keep making it.
If we do, we'll keep committing prize-winning, edge-cutting journalism. If we do, we'll be part of the rising tide lifting all Mercedian ships. If we do, we'll all enjoy the comeback together.
It oughta be a worthwhile trip.
Executive editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2427 or 385-2456 or firstname.lastname@example.org