Bottom line can't replace news values

Gregory Favre is a fellow of the Poynter Institute, a school for professional journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla. He is a former editor and managing editor at a number of papers, former president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and retired vice president/news for McClatchy Co., parent company of The News & Observer.

Sometimes I feel as if I am climbing a hill with an ancient linotype machine tied to my back and a crowd, as rowdy as European soccer thugs, is heckling me unmercifully: "Did you just wander into the parade from another century?"

Perhaps I did, because you can still label me optimistic about the future of news and information. Don't get me wrong. I know how drastic technology has changed the landscape, that more than a quarter of young people don't get any news, and that the old economic model for mass media doesn't work as it used to.

Newspaper circulation and advertising are dropping each reporting period, and few have figured out how to monetize their Internet operations. Staffs are being sliced, and space is being squeezed beyond decency.

Yet, newspapers in every market I visit have more readers today than ever before, adding together their print and Web offerings. More than 50 million people still read a printed Sunday paper in this country. Profit margins remain in the teens, not enough to satisfy a ravenous Wall Street but healthier than most industries.

And smaller daily newspapers, weeklies and the burgeoning ethnic news outlets are doing well, thank you. Why? They connect with their audiences. People see themselves and hear themselves. Neighbors to neighbors, in their own words and language, replacing the backyard and porch conversations that no longer exist in a society where we more and more hide behind our own redoubts.

I grew up on my dad's weekly in southern Mississippi a long time ago, and I learned things back then that are still relevant today, even as we go around genuflecting at the altar of technology.

We learned to treat our readers with care and provide content that made a difference in their lives; to work hard to earn a feeling of trust; to understand our obligation to question ourselves, just as we questioned others; and to live and work by the same set of values that we asked of those we covered. And to offer an act of contrition when one was justified.

We learned that we had to be an effective and responsible monitor of what was happening in our community and to provide an open forum for the views and insights of others.

We learned that we had to be a concerned and compassionate chronicler of people's lives and to provide hope for those without hope. And we had to be the reviewer and critic of the culture of our time.

Has the news industry forgotten these lessons? Is everything now geared to how we deliver the news and not how we keep faith with our audience? Is it more important to get there first than to offer wit and integrity in our reporting? Is the need to instantly blog more urgent than dispensing knowledge to those who are seeking a sense of perspective and intellectual honesty and fairness; and, above all, who are seeking good writing, good storytelling and the graceful use of the language -- journalism that comes from the heart as well as the mind?

Is news as we know it dead?

Almost two years ago we suffered the greatest natural disaster in our history, Hurricane Katrina. City after city was crushed by her unholy waters, including my hometown of Bay St. Louis, Miss. I was thousands of miles away and was wading in ignorance of any news about my family and friends. And men and women at the Sun Herald in Biloxi and the Times-Picayune in New Orleans put aside their own pain, their own losses, their own tears to create a place for all of us to come together. They did it in print and online, and they did it with courage and honor.

Think back to Sept. 11, 2001, in those days of fear and mourning and awakened patriotism. The future of news was now. People needed information, context and meaning -- and they got it. Fundamentals were more important than ever; expertise and incisive, analytical journalism were everything.

The men and women who brought us those stories, and the thousands of others like them in newsrooms across the globe, are the soul of our business, not the delivery platforms or the guardians of the bottom lines.

I can't imagine all the incredible ways we will be telling stories in the future, but I do believe that if we lose our soul or trade it for a few dollars more, the question you ask will instead become an affirmative headline: "This is the end of news." And, I would add, democracy as we know it.