12/05/2005 - This week, the celebration of the 300th anniversary of Benjamin Franklin's birth begins in earnest with the opening of a new international exhibition on Franklin's long and storied life at the National Constitution Center. For all his accomplishments, Franklin was first, and perhaps foremost, a newspaperman, publisher of the lively and successful Pennsylvania Gazette.It is bittersweet that such a celebration comes at a time of some peril for his latter-day heirs in Philadelphia, the people who write and publish The Inquirer and its sister publication, the Philadelphia Daily News.
After another dispiriting round of cutbacks at both papers, the Inquirer's owner, Knight Ridder Inc., has been pressured by minority stockholders to entertain offers to sell the company. At this writing, it remains unclear whether the two newspapers will remain part of Knight Ridder, will be sold together to a different media company, or will be sold off separately.
Depending on how these high-stakes maneuvers turn out, the situation at the newspapers could stabilize, improve or get much worse under a new owner determined to improve the bottom line through further cutbacks.
This is more than a fascinating business story. There is an important public interest - a community interest - in the outcome that deserves greater attention.
For journalism is not just a business. It's a public trust, an essential element in the democratic mosaic. In their book The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write of their exhaustive effort in the late 1990s - through public forums and opinion surveys; in-depth interviews with leading practitioners; and a review of journalism history - to develop a widely accepted definition of the purpose of journalism and the principles that should guide it.
Their conclusion, in a text now taught in journalism schools throughout the country: "The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing."
It is easy enough to come up with dozens of examples of how newspapers such as The Inquirer perform that role, but perhaps the best testament to journalism's critical role in democratic life can be seen in the predictable behavior of dictatorships. As Kovach and Rosenstiel note, "societies that want to suppress freedom must first suppress the press."
We hold no special brief for newspapers per se. Rather, we care about journalism - quality journalism.
Quality journalism can be found in good beat reporting that tells readers what is really going on at City Hall, in the schools, at Children's Hospital or at Lincoln Financial Field. It can be found in in-depth reports on the situation in Iraq or, to take a recent example from The Inquirer, in the city's public housing projects. It can be found in hard-hitting investigative reporting that exposes injustices that might otherwise go undetected. And it can be found in spirited opinion pages with their feisty mix of expert and community commentary.
The effect of good journalism is not only to keep the public well informed, but also to hold powerful institutions - in government, in business, in the nonprofit sector - accountable.
While quality journalism comes in many forms, newspapers, at this point in our history, remain the primary source. This is particularly true at the regional level, where sources of information are more limited.
The Inquirer newsroom, even after the 15 percent cutback this fall, is by far the largest news operation in the Philadelphia region. And it bears noting that the region's most popular and substantive journalistic Web site, Philly.com, relies heavily for its original content on the print journalism produced by The Inquirer and Daily News.
As advertisers (and the readers they need to reach) move away from print to the Internet and other venues, newspapers - no matter how enlightened their owners - are under pressure. While Internet advertising is growing rapidly, it is far from clear that it will eventually support the kind of robust journalism we've become accustomed to reading in print. So a new economic model may eventually be needed.
Whatever transpires in the coming weeks on Wall Street or at Knight Ridder's corporate headquarters in San Jose, Calif., there is a strong community interest in the outcome.
In the end, this region needs to be well served by an ownership that understands the importance of quality journalism and does its utmost to ensure that Philadelphians receive their full measure.
Rebecca Rimel is the president and CEO of The Pew Charitable Trusts. Don Kimelman directs the Trusts' Information projects.