In his last moments as editor of USA Today before moving to the presidency of the Newseum, Ken Paulson recently offered his insights on the newspaper industry. Following are excerpts.
By Ken Paulson
They are the courageous men and women who have used freedom of the press to make a real difference in American society. They are the journalists who reported about racial injustice during the height of the civil rights movement, helping to fuel freedom through the power of words and images.
They're the war correspondents and photographers who risked their lives to tell the stories of our men and women in uniform and their battles in defense of liberty. They're the muckrakers and investigative reporters who have challenged the powerful and courageously reported stories that would otherwise have gone untold.
Newspapers remain an extraordinary information bargain and we shouldn't be selling them short. And yet despite that heroic history, the news business -- and particularly the newspaper business -- is in rough shape these days. There seems to be a collective sense both inside and outside the newspaper industry that news in print is about to disappear.
I do think there's room for perspective.
Yes, it's true that there have been significant layoffs at America's newspapers, but there have also been huge layoffs at Home Depot and no one is predicting the demise of hammers. You have to separate the troubled economy from the special challenges facing the news industry, and it's important that we not undervalue the power of print.
I can certainly understand why newspapers are not viewed as trendy. After all, they were really the iPods of 1690.
What if Gutenberg had inventeda digital modem?
But humor me, and consider this alternate history: Imagine if Gutenberg had invented a digital modem rather than a printing press, and that for centuries all of our information had come to us online. Further, imagine if we held a press conference announcing the invention of an intriguing new product called the "newspaper." That news conference might go something like this:
"We're pleased to announce a new product that will revolutionize the way you access information. It will save you time and money and keep you better informed than ever before.
"Just consider the hours you've spent on the Internet looking for information of interest to you. We've hired specialists who live and work in your hometown to cull information sources and provide a daily report tailored to your community, your friends and your neighbors.
"We also know that you sometimes wonder whether you can trust the information you see online. We plan to introduce a painstaking new process called 'fact-checking' in which we actually verify the information before we pass it along to you.
"In addition to saving time online, you'll also save money. You won't need those expensive color ink cartridges or reams of paper because information will be printed out for you in full color every day.
"You'll also save money on access charges and those unpleasant fights over who gets time on the computer because this product will be physically delivered to your home at the same time each day, for less than what you would tip the guy from Pizza Hut.
"You worry about your kids stumbling across porn on the internet, but this product is prescreened and guaranteed suitable for the whole family.
"And in a security breakthrough, we guarantee newspapers to be absolutely virus-free, and promise the elimination of those annoying pop-up ads.
"It's also the most portable product in the world, and doesn't require batteries or electricity. And when the flight attendant tells you to turn off your electronic devices, you can actually turn this on, opening page after page without worrying about interfering with the plane's radar.
"To top it all off, you don't need a long-term warranty or service protection program. If you're not happy with this product on any day, we'll redesign it and bring you a new one the next day."
I can see the headlines now: "Cutting-edge newspapers threaten Google's survival."
Newspapers remain anextraordinary information bargain
My point, of course, is that newspapers remain an extraordinary information bargain and we shouldn't be selling them short -- or lose sight of the qualities that make American journalism so critical to our democracy.
As I leave USA Today, I'm going down the street to the Newseum, a place with a 74-foot high marble First Amendment tablet, and a commitment to preserving these fundamental freedoms. This is a night for fun, but on an evening when we're honoring a fine journalist, I also want to reflect for a moment on the First Amendment and its importance to both our nation and our profession.
The 45 words of the First Amendment were written in 1791; they've gone unchanged but certainly not unchallenged. And collectively those fundamental freedoms have truly made America what it is today.
Throughout world history, what has driven war and division? Very often religious differences spark conflicts. That first generation of Americans said, "I will honor your faith if you honor mine." What an extraordinary decision to make in 1791.
What else causes instability in this world? What leads to governments being overthrown? Well, typically when the people don't feel they have a voice. So that first generation of Americans said, "You have the power of petition and assembly and the right to speak out whenever you want."
And what leads to revolution and overthrown governments? When the people in charge are corrupt and they abuse their power. The Founding Fathers gave us a free press to keep an eye on our leaders and to stand up to them on behalf of the American people.
What an amazing set of liberties. It's not a coincidence that the most dynamic, creative and powerful nation in the history of the planet is also the most free.
With the support of the American people, the Founding Fathers created a new and powerful government, but also guaranteed the kind of a free press that would take a stand for liberty and justice. That mission has not changed. When cuts have to be made and resources are reduced, we need to remember that core commitment to the American people.
Some say stock pages are on their way out, others say TV listings are obsolete, but our watchdog role is not expendable. And keeping an eye on people in power is still job one. I remain bullish about the future of newspapers and the journalism they produce ... .
When we do our jobs the right way, striving every day to publish reports of integrity and balance, when we ask the tough questions, when we fight to keep the public's business public and when we provide the kind of thorough and balanced reporting that is the life blood of a democracy, we fulfill our promise to that first generation of Americans who believed that one of the best ways to guarantee a democracy was a free and vigorous press.
We owe our readers and viewers a daily report that we're proud of, embracing our First Amendment freedoms while living up to our professional responsibilities. There are people counting on us.