As a journalism professor, I often confound my idealistic students on the first day of classes by asking them why newspapers exist. The litany of answers invariably includes informing the people, fostering democracy, creating common ground, supporting diversity, and guarding against government excess. All are staggeringly noble — and staggeringly wrong.
Newspapers, like all other businesses, exist first to make money. It’s a fact anyone planning to work for any sort of business has to learn. It’s also a fact that often is taken to senseless and soulless extremes.
Newspapers shouldn’t exist solely to make money. Nor should any business. If we as humans are to rise above our animalistic nature, our business endeavors also have to be about helping people, serving our community, and pursuing good — whether it be by providing reasonably priced haircuts and cleaning clogged drains or by producing beautiful paintings and making loans that help people achieve their dreams.
At the end of the day, we need to feel good about what we’ve done — not just financially enriched for having done it. It isn’t just illegality that prevents everyone from becoming a drug dealer, a con artist, a prostitute, or an arms merchant. It’s morality, too.
These days, many of the nation’s newspapers, particularly those in metropolitan areas, are facing financial challenges. Competition from the Internet for advertising, declining geographic community, and radically decreased relevance of government and other institutions are not the only reasons. Many of the problems are their own doing — insistence on massive profit margins, reduced content, shocking mismanagement, and hugely speculative consolidation that has saddled them with massive debt.
We understand that the corporate owners of The Wichita Eagle and their newly imported publisher want to increase their profitability. We also understand that delivering copies of the weekday Eagle to Marion County never was a big moneymaker and, in fact, probably always resulted in a financial loss.
What we don’t understand is how a newspaper that bills itself, via its website name of kansas.com, as covering all of Kansas can do so while shrinking its circulation area closer and closer to its core.
Time was, you could get home delivery not just of the Wichita paper but also of papers from Kansas City, Topeka, Newton and elsewhere. Now we are down to Salina — which, interestingly enough, is the only paper among them that is owned primarily by interests with roots in the state.
This newspaper does many things that don’t make us money, and they’re not confined to news items, the likes of which the Eagle charges to publish while we publish them free. Most of the smaller ads we run — the type that small businesses rely upon to get out their message and that townships use to fulfill their legal obligations — actually cost us more to design, sell, print, and bill than we make off them.
Publishing a newspaper shouldn’t be all about money. As one of the principal owners of this paper, I can categorically state that I have never made a cent, in salary or dividends, since working here developing photos while in high school. I’m not alone either. I’m sure dozens of other Marion County businesses and business people intentionally forgo higher personal and corporate rewards by continuing to provide less-profitable services that their communities need.
That’s what you do if you’re a good neighbor and a good member of the community. The Wichita Eagle has proved itself to be neither.
— ERIC MEYER