I have worked for newspapers for more than 40 years now, and since my younger brother’s death a year ago, I have known that I would leave my job at McClatchy before too long. I’ve always looked forward to having second phase of my career, to a chance to spend more time with my wife, and I am tenderly aware that none of us can command the calendar.
While awaiting the right opportunity to depart, I have discovered that there is no opportune time for such an announcement, and so I have simply set a date. I will leave at the end of the year.
As you would expect, it is painful to leave a company I love and a profession that has defined my life. I am acutely aware that this is a time of great challenge and uncertainty for our business, and the most poignant part of my decision is the feeling that I am abandoning shipmates left in peril. I feel bad about leaving when so many beloved colleagues and fine journalists are working through such difficult conditions to sustain and advance the crucial work we do.
Yet their good work and deep devotion also make it easier for me to depart, for I am wise enough to know that this mission will be in good hands without me, and this allows me to move on.
Some colleagues I’ve told about my plans warn that this will surely be interpreted as “Howard bailing out,” or some sign of impending disaster at McClatchy. Like so much you hear about our business nowadays, such thinking would reflect people who don’t know what they’re talking about saying things that don’t make sense.
I take my leave feeling sure about two things.
First, that the challenge faced by McClatchy and its newsrooms is immense and fundamental. Navigating to success through the coming months will be painful, sometimes torturous work.
Secondly, that the mission of public service journalism will emerge from this transformation in tact, and that McClatchy will remain in control of its own destiny. I have deep faith in McClatchy’s ownership, in its leadership, and in its journalists.
You may recall that I offered six months ago to wager $1,000 with anybody who thinks differently. I haven’t had any takers yet, but I hope I will; I could use the money.
I have spent too much of my life in newsrooms simply to pronounce some Pollyanna forecast. My confidence is grounded in an intimate, 30-year history with McClatchy. The forecast represents a distillation of everything I know and believe and have figured out about the profound changes unfolding around us. My insights and credentials are far from perfect, but they are not inconsequential. My prediction of success is rooted in deep thought and nuanced study.
At the heart of my analysis rests a simple but potent realization I made many years ago: honest, high quality news is far more powerful and more valuable than raw data, sloppy reporting or partisan propaganda. No institution is even remotely as well equipped as we to deliver this public service information to the civic sphere. We are hurting too badly for me to say that glibly or to underestimate how hard is will be to prove, but I have bedrock faith that we will do so.
Unlike so many of our poorly informed critics, I do not believe our current circumstances are primarily the result of mistakes. They are, rather, the simple and inevitable result of being in a mature business that has been overtaken by transformational change that would have turned us inside-out no matter what we had done.
You will hear digital triumphalists and grave dancers hurl charges like “Why didn’t newspapers invent Google?” or “Why didn’t newspapers start Craigslist?” Many of them look to the enormous power and promise of the networked world and admonish us to abandon print publishing altogether, a nonsensical notion that illustrates both the depth of their ignorance and shallowness of their analysis.
Just for the record, Google didn’t even invent Google. Larry and Sergei, brilliant as they are, didn’t know what they had created when they started indexing web pages. Their company would have gone broke if Yahoo has not licensed its search capacity in early years, and they didn’t start to make real money until they purchased and incorporated somebody else’s system for selling contextual search advertising.
As for Craigslist, think about that for a moment. How on earth would creating free classified listings have saved the profitable classified advertising whose loss we feel so painfully today? Craig Newmark, a smart and unassuming nerd, is perfectly happy to charge a pittance on a tiny fraction of his ads to subsidize the majority of the free listings. There’s no way we could have stopped him from his philanthropic endeavor, and no way that duplicating his service would save us.
And think about this, as well: printed newspapers continue to reach about half the adults in the country every day, and to generate billions of dollars in annual revenue. Only a person who has never enjoyed that kind of base would be foolish enough to advise that we abandon it. This is the foundation upon which we are building the success of our increasingly digital future.
Though it is under great stress, there is so much right about our company and our prospects that I have no hesitation in forecasting success. All around us, legendary banks and auto companies are failing. Housing has crashed and consumer confidence plummets. But consider this: in the midst of the greatest economic calamity in generations, already deep in the throes of transformational secular change, the McClatchy Company is operating multimedia publishing companies in 29 American cities from Miami to Anchorage – and all are profitable. Thousands of skilled and dedicated journalists went to work this morning in these McClatchy cities, ready and able to practice public service journalism.
There’s no denying we have been gravely wounded by the end of our industry’s monopoly advantages, and those wounds are deeper still on account of the devastating condition of the national economy today. I certainly have not always reacted correctly or with due speed to the nature of the changes, and our whole industry has – to varying degrees – been overtaken by the speed and scope of changing consumer habits; we need to move faster in reshaping some of what we do.
And while it's true that ensuring our future requires sophisticated selling, steadfast, adaptive management and steely resolve, the future is really all about the newsrooms.
Nothing else we do as a company means much if we fail to sustain our public service journalism. The McClatchy family has not persevered into the seventh generation in order to publish successful brides magazines, or websites with comprehensive nightclub listings. We labor not to ensure we can create new blogs for pet owners, or rich vertical online sites devoted to vacation properties. All of these and much more are essential, of course, because public service journalism is an expensive proposition, but we must not take for granted the capacity or elasticity of our newsrooms.
Let me close and say farewell in gratitude.
I am grateful that C.K. McClatchy saved the Anchorage Daily News and then hired me to write editorials there 30 years ago. I am grateful for the unwavering guidance and support I got for practicing the kind of journalism that won us the Pulitzer Prize for Pubic Service just a few weeks before his death. That precious commitment has been true here at McClatchy every day of my career. I am grateful to the family owners, to the board of directors, and of course to my colleagues, in newsrooms and on editorial boards and in the executive suite.
But most of all, as I close the book on my contributions to the company, I am grateful that Gary Pruitt is young enough, smart enough and tough enough to keep leading McClatchy through this perilous time. We’ve worked together since the early 1980s, when I was a young editor and he an even younger First Amendment lawyer, and I’m well positioned to bear witness to the remarkable consistency of character he brings to the challenges at hand. McClatchy could not have better hands on the tiller.