Principle before profit


In these tumultuous times in the newspaper industry it is easy to forget there once was a press led by men and women who did not panic at every slight downturn in profit margins already grossly inflated, who regarded the properties they controlled as bulwarks for democracy and whose vision extended beyond each three-month cycle.

Success in business to them transcended profit, which they believed would be steady and lasting only as long as they were constant in observing their responsibilities to their readers and their communities.

Those publishers who didn’t understand these obligations, particularly to the privilege granted them by the Constitution, failed to survive. Those who managed to combine entrepreneurial acumen with motives other than financial success became wealthy, often building or furthering major media empires that have withstood time and have helped preserve the United States as the freest nation on Earth.

It would be easy to pass off these sentiments as journalism school boilerplate meant to imbue idealistic youngsters with a false sense of importance and heroics before they tasted the disillusionment of competitive reality. It would be even easier to cast this as revisionist claptrap when in actuality some of America’s biggest publishers and broadcasters have been outright blackguards profiting from distorted circulation builders and ruthless practices aimed not at finding the truth but in furthering their own political influence and wealth.

While some of these accusations may be accurate and it would be painfully naive to deny them, those who abused the ethics of their craft were far fewer than those who didn’t. There were men and women who believed these ideals fervently their entire lives, practiced them and made us all better off because they did. One of these torchbearers left us the other day after 87 years, most of which were spent honoring and preserving two centuries of family legacy.

For more than four decades Charles E. Scripps, along with his partners Roy and then Jack Howard, had managed the affairs of his grandfather’s vast media holdings, the E. W. Scripps Co., an institution founded in 1878 but dating back much further to a distinguished publishing family first in London and then in America where members earlier had help found such media giants as the Chicago Tribune and the Detroit News. His chairmanship of the company was thrust on him at an incredibly early age, 32, when vast changes not unlike those of today were taking place. Reader cycles were changing from afternoon to morning newspapers and television was hacking away at the advertising base.

A tall, robust and gentle man whose quiet demeanor belied his penchant for fast motorcycles and rugged sailing, Charles Scripps met the challenges with a stated determination to protect and expand the legacy — 25 newspapers in major cities across the country, United Press (later UPI), text and comic and photographic syndicates, radio and television.

Although he saw the need for expansion into non-traditional areas and endorsed such enterprises as cable systems and the creation of Home & Garden Television, he was first and foremost a believer in journalism, a man wedded to the principles of fair and accurate reporting and he endorsed whatever costs it took to bring the information to his readers. He was a veteran of World War II and never forgot that among the 34 American correspondents lost in that conflict, nine, including the revered Ernie Pyle, had come from Scripps Howard organizations. To him what Pyle represented never died.

Whether Scripps wanted the responsibility rather than a career in science, which continued to fascinate him throughout life, is problematic. The fact is he assumed the job and never grumbled about it. He just dug in with Jack Howard at his side and the two of them kept things going through the turmoil that seemed to cut into their enterprises.

He was not a distant boss. He was a colleague who took great pride in participating firsthand in the annual conferences of editors and business managers without exerting pressure or overriding influence. His note of praise and encouragement to a young Washington bureau chief after a particularly acrimonious session never will be forgotten.

At a recent memorial for him, the current E. W. Scripps Co. chairman, William Burleigh, read a note written by Scripps at a time his company and other privately-held newspaper companies were going public. Scripps warned in his note that it would be a mistake to narrow the corporate focus to that of Wall Street. True success comes from decisions fixed on a point in the future far beyond a fiscal quarter or two and demands an adherence to long-held principles, Scripps said.

Is anyone listening?

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)