Davis Taylor

Publisher, The Boston Globe

1975 Convocation Address

President and Mrs. Robert E. L. Strider, distinguished members of the faculty, students and friends of Colby College: I want you to know what a tremendous honor it is for me both personally and professionally to be here tonight and to receive this award. The Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award is given in memory of a Colby graduate who died at the hands of a mob while trying to protect his printing equipment for an abolitionist paper. Elijah Lovejoy thus became a martyr to the cause of freedom of the press. That is who this award honors, and what it is all about. And for anyone who has spent his life in the newspaper business, as I have–and as my father and grandfather did before–no award in honor of any cause could be more precious or pleasing. Elijah Lovejoy was no saint, of course. We know, for example, that he occasionally attacked others for their Catholicism. He was an irascible cuss. There’s little doubt of that. But he was a dogged individual who stood up for what he believed in, and refused to compromise his principles for anything less than what he saw as right. It is an historical fact that those who wish to destroy a people’s freedom begin at the edges of a free press. That is what Elijah Lovejoy was resisting that day a hundred and thirty-eight years ago when he was gunned down by a mob in the small town of Alton, Illinois. And that is why it is such an honor for myself and The Boston Globe to receive this award in his name.

One of these institutions is newspapers. Good newspapers reflect the character of the community and the nation.

Well, we’ve all come to Maine for a little professional criticism, but before I go any further, I want to take my hat off to Colby College. I think it’s terribly appropriate for this great institution to foster an interest in–and concern for–the newspaper profession in this country. We both share a great endeavor. We approach our jobs from different directions: Education is done in the retail sense here, if you will. In newspapers, it is done. wholesale. It’s an awesome responsibility…and neither one of us–the nation’s universities or the nation’s newspapers–is meeting the challenge adequately.

I want to talk essentially about a slightly different aspect of press freedom. For centuries the enemy to this freedom of speech has been government. It was true in New York in John Peter Zenger’s day and it was true in Washington in Richard Nixon’s tenure as President. We must always be alert to that threat–of government action that stifles the freedoms guaranteed by our constitution.

Right now one of the greatest government threats to the free press and the people’s right to know resides in 753 pages of pending legislation called S 1– a federal recodification of criminal law. Specifically, there is the section dealing with espionage and related offenses which the American Civil Liberties Union says “promises to cut off circulation of information relating to foreign and domestic policy decision making and programs.” In a sentence it will make classification for the government easier and access by the public more difficult. Many lawyers feel it would have made the publication of the Pentagon Papers prohibitive.

But there is still another threat to press freedom which has crept up on us. It is both social and economic, and intertwined.

Lord Bryce, the distinguished British writer of the American scene wrote: “America is all of a piece; its institutions are the product of its economic and social conditions and the expression of its character.”

One of these institutions is newspapers. Good newspapers reflect the character of the community and the nation. Today these same newspapers are also being affected by the social and economic conditions of their communities.

Our large metropolitan cities are being torn by social and economic strife. The surface issue, in many cities, is busing on the social end. We have seen it in full bloom in Boston the past year and a half. But busing is not the real issue. It is whether white and black people at the bottom rung of the economic ladder are going to be able to live together in peace.

We seem to do all right at Fenway Park and on the high school fields on Saturday afternoons. We cheer for the Tiants, the Plunketts, and the Herrons. We share in their accomplishments. And left alone, our children do not even think of integration on the football field. Yet we have trouble putting a white youngster next to a black child in too many school rooms.

Newspapers are in this struggle whether they want to be or not. They need not lecture. But they must provide a clear diagnosis of the problem and preventive medicine options so that people can make right decisions.

This is not easy. Some of the preventive medicine is not easy to take. It means recognizing the validity of Federal court rulings in our system of government and urging the public to obey the courts. It means recommending unpopular courses so that our children can live together.

Now we have the deplorable situation where the percentage of American cities with two or more newspapers has fallen from about 60 percent in 1910 to less than 4 percent today.

Most recently, pure economic conditions are impacting all our institutions. And newspapers are no exception for it has not been government that has forced so many newspapers all over the country to discontinue publication. The Washington Star, a fine paper, is struggling to stay alive. If it goes under, it will not be because it is a journalistic failure. It will be because it could not cope with its financial troubles.

These troubles are not new. For decades, newspapers have been disappearing. Now we have the deplorable situation where the percentage of American cities with two or more newspapers has fallen from about 60 percent in 1910 to less than 4 percent today.

Magazines have closed their doors, too, and for the same reasons. Life and Look folded–not because a despotic government shut them down–but because of financial troubles.

The outlook is grim indeed. It clearly is a world-wide problem.

We have to share some of this blame. Newspapers in large metropolitan areas in particular are tied to the economic wellbeing of their central cities. And we have not done the hard, intelligent, and yes, courageous, economic reporting that we try to do in investigative reports in other areas.

New York is classic. And perhaps in our own backyard in Massachusetts we are not that far behind. We just plain missed the story. New York floated moral obligation bonds for which there was no obligation and no moral. It was a state living off a credit card. It was not a balanced economic situation. As New York State Controller Arthur Levitt said most recently, the banks knew it and, what he didn’t say but which needs saying, the newspapers SHOULD HAVE known about it.

Newspapers by and large have been timid about economic reporting. It is the same kind of sensitivity they once displayed for the national security. Many editors and publishers felt that it would be wrong to expose the Bay of Pigs plan because it would endanger our national security. We know better. We know better, too, about moral obligation bonds.

For better or worse, newspapers are closely tied to the economic well-being of our communities. If they fail, we fail. And if we are to protect the First Amendment role of the press, we must play an active role in the preservation of that economic health.

Newspapers, in the final analysis, are the educational textbooks of an informed citizenry.

They are the final line of defense for a thinking public. If newspapers don’t succeed in informing the public–particularly those whose readers are on the bottom half of the income scale–then who will?

How else can the people get the information needed to make sensible and effective decisions–or to elect responsible men and women to make sensible and effective decisions for them?

Where else can they get information necessary to become productive workers, satisfied consumers, loving parents, and responsible citizens?

This, in the end, is a challenge and mandate of a free press. Newspapers, by and large, simply have not done a professional job of covering the economic story of our cities and the nation.

We all have to cope with inflation–individuals and businesses of all kinds. But inflation in newspapers is particularly sensitive because it has a direct effect on the people’s right to know.

If we raise the price of the paper, we lose readers and we tend to lose the kind of reader who most needs the information we publish every day. Last winter, The Boston Globe decided it had to increase the price of its Sunday paper from 50 to 75 cents. This was in the middle of a recession–a recession that was more deeply felt in Boston than elsewhere. It was at a time when our taxes were increasing, the cost of newsprint was on the rise, and production costs were up throughout our entire process.

Newspapers, in the final analysis, are the educational textbooks of an informed citizenry.

The result of that price increase was the loss of 98,000 in circulation. We have won more than half of those back. But the point I am making is that the increased cost of doing business prevented information from reaching people. One might make the analogy that the high price of a newspaper has the same effect as a prior restraint order of the court, because it reduces the dissemination of news. Either way, the news does not reach the people who need it most. This disturbs me greatly.

There is a similar problem when we raise advertising rates. The marginal business which most needs us is shut out by the cost squeeze, and its ability to survive and prosper is hindered.

Newspaper unions also must recognize that they, like publishers and editors, have a special responsibility to the First Amendment. They, too, have an obligation in their demands not to diminish a newspaper’s role to inform. Nor in their disputes with newspapers should they destroy the very tools that provide the people’s right to know…as they did at the Washington Post press room less than a month ago.

As you undoubtedly know, a group of pressmen destroyed several million dollars worth of printing equipment, set fires, and went out on strike. They are still out. But the paper is still publishing. Lovejoy’s threat to publication was from OUTSIDE his plant; Post publisher Mrs. Katharine Graham’s threat came from WITHIN her plant. Both should disturb all of us who care about press freedom.

We are all losers in this. The peril is to all those who work on newspapers and magazines and the businesses who advertise in them.

The danger is even greater to the reading public and to our democratic system. As imperfect as the printed press is, it still provides information that no other media can match. Television does some wonderful things but–who dug into the Nixon White House and exposed the moral corruption?–a newspaper, the Washington Post. Who published the Pentagon Papers, which showed the systematic lying about the Vietnam War?–The New York Times, with a major assist from the Washington Post and the Boston Globe. Who provides a sustained report, day after day, of what is going on in government, in business, in our community?–Newspapers.

If the printed press is to survive as a healthy part of our democratic system, it must be given a reasonable chance to deal with the economic problems.

Unless the costs of production in our own industry are held steady, we face the prospect of losing more and more of our readers, because they cannot afford to read us.

It has been shown in other industries, and it must be shown in our own, that one does not have to be anti-union to bargain without sentimentality.

I don’t have any magic solution. But I do know that it will take the best effort of all of us in the news business.

One antidote to both government and economic threats to our profession is a greater effort to inform the public on the purpose, the role, and the basic workings of the modern newspaper.

We need informed, but not slick, promotion of not just our finished product but our profession as a whole.

Television does some wonderful things but–who dug into the Nixon White House and exposed the moral corruption?–a newspaper.

Yet, in our own profession, where all we are trying to sell is the idea that we are a service, hopefully a noble one, to the public interest, we spend a meager effort on this image. Consequently, there is mistrust and even hostility toward the media.

As I have already stated, the most important part of this fight is won by our own vigilance against slanted news, self-interest, and the inroads of government pressure. But if we begin winning that battle, then we ought to get about the business of repairing our image where repairs are needed.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am very optimistic about the ability of the American press to do whatever is necessary to adjust to changing conditions, to do whatever is necessary to stay both free and vital in the years ahead.

Notwithstanding some of the things I have been talking about tonight, the fact is that the American press is the most innovative, most vibrant press in the world, bar none.

As I come to the end of my remarks, I would like to leave you with three words that I think must be given top priority in the years ahead as newspapers carve out their future.

These are the Three Commandments of the newspaper profession.

I am speaking of Accountability, Credibility, and Respectability.

Now, more than ever, do we owe it to ourselves–and to our readers–to be Accountable for what we do.

It’s been said that the pen is mightier than the sword, and it’s true–truer today, perhaps, than ever before.

And as this power increases, so does our obligation to be Accountable to the people we serve. We should listen more carefully to our readers and those who complain about what we print.

They are often more right than some of us edgy journalists–I include myself.

We must say what we mean and mean what we say–and welcome all opposing points of view.

Letters to the editor, prominently displayed correction boxes, Ombudsmen, and a persistent willingness to publish differing viewpoints are all part of Accountability.

In sum, where we err we must persist in setting the matter right, which leads us to the second Holy Commandment of the newspaper business–the goal of Credibility.

Credibility can’t be imposed by edict, or cajoled by contest prizes.

Like love and sex, if you have to ask how to go about it you’re unlikely to find out.

But one thing is certain: If your readers don’t think you have it, you’re not going to succeed as a newspaper.

That audience will decide whether what we have to say is to be believed. And they’re not going to be hoodwinked.

Our best hope is to believe in what we say editorially, and to bend over backwards to be more fair in our news columns.

I think the media generally has greatly improved on this matter of fairness over the past two or three years.

That may also mean being a little humble. The time for preachy self-righteousness and one-dimensional denunciation is past.

I sometimes think that we in the press often are too superficial, too sloppy on detail, sometimes too intolerant and often reporters too sparing of their shoe leather. Anyone who deals vigorously with these weaknesses is well on the way toward winning back Credibility.

In the face of an increasingly complex society, newspapers must be compassionate–as well as concerned.

And if they are, then Respectability will follow as night does day.

A newspaper that is not respected, in the end will not be read, either.

Newspapers can’t hope to be loved by everyone, but they can certainly try to be admired and respected by everyone–just as they must always admire and respect the viewpoint of all their readers.

I don’t believe those people who will try to tell you that the days of the newspaper industry are numbered.

I’ve been in this business for almost half a century now, and I’ve never been as confident about its future as I am today.

We have our problems, yet I am an optimist. And, I think, with good reason.

Winston Churchill once said that democracy is the worst form of government–except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.

Like democracy itself, the American press is not perfect. But, our press is better than what you will find in most other countries in the world.

It has served our nation in our two-hundred year history as well as all our other institutions and in some cases, better.

I sincerely believe that it will be even stronger, more exciting, more professional, more productive, and more influential in the next decade ahead.

Why? Because United States newspapers respond particularly well in times of trial and crisis. Meeting challenge under deadline is our daily business.

A newspaper that is not respected, in the end will not be read, either.

In this case, the deadline is unknown, the challenge is very real indeed. Our Democratic system is in trouble and is crying for help–from its strongest ally–the nation’s free and concerned press. You have seen the press respond in very recent times in the name of integrity of government. You will see it respond again, this time in the name of economic solvency of all free institutions. And, without self-sufficiency, there is no freedom.

This is the message of Elijah Lovejoy–and the shots which killed him more than a century and a half ago rang out across the country and across the world like the shots that rang out in Lexington and Concord 200 years ago.

The Boston Globe has tried to carry this message to its readers and the community for more than 100 years.

If you gave us the Lovejoy Award for carrying this message, I humbly accept it in this spirit.

Elijah Parish Lovejoy Award

About the Lovejoy Award

Colby College remembers alumnus Elijah Parish Lovejoy through the annual Lovejoy Award, which honors journalists who demonstrate courage, integrity, and craftsmanship.

Born in Albion, Maine, Lovejoy graduated from Colby in 1826. On Nov. 7, 1837, in Alton, Ill., the newspaper editor and publisher was killed after he refused to stop publishing anti-slavery editorials. He was called America’s first martyr to freedom of the press by John Quincy Adams.

Current Lovejoy Selection Committee Members include Matt Apuzzo ’00, reporter and investigative correspondent, New York Times; Nancy Barnes, senior vice president and editorial director, NPR; Sewell Chan, editorial page editor, Los Angeles Times; Marcela Gaviria, producer, PBS FRONTLINE; Neil Gross, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology, Colby College; Martin Kaiser, former editor and senior vice president Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Mindy Marqués, vice president and executive editor, Simon and Schuster, former editor, Miami Herald; and Ron Nixon, global investigations editor, Associated Press.

For more information, visit colby.edu/lovejoy