He retired as editor of the Eagle in 1999. He is the author of the book Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy at Risk.
Merritt said there are two things to think about today. One is that journalism must somehow survive if democracy is to survive. The two are interdependent. One can’t exist without the other.
The second is that democracy can’t survive on opinions alone. “The plasma of democracy is shared information,” he said. People need a way to discuss the implications of that shared information, forming the mechanism of democracy.
Merritt sees a notion, becoming more reinforced, that opinions are more important that information. Everyone has an opinion, but not everyone has good information. With everyone having a megaphone, there’s no check on irresponsibility.
We’re entitled to free speech, but we’re not entitled to our own facts, he said. Journalism has been the provider of this shared information that makes democracy possible.
Changes in the information environment have been wonderful, he said. “The problem is the rutabaga man can vote.” He may be interested only in rutabagas, and that’s all he searches for on his computer, but there’s information and facts he needs to know in order to participate in democracy.
It’s clear that newspapers are in trouble, Merritt says. We don’t necessarily need newspapers, but we need the type of journalism that newspapers have traditionally provided. A concern is that the infrastructure that supports journalism will go away before the transfer is made to online delivery of journalism.
How did newspapers get in such trouble? The key event is the shift from family ownership to institutional ownership of newspapers. The search for ever-increasing profits by the new owners lead to cost-cutting measures that have snowballed. (If you read “Knightfall” you’ll learn that one of the things the Wichita Eagle did to cut costs was to stop delivery to western Kansas.)
If journalism like that which newspapers provide goes away, democracy is in terrible trouble. “No shared information, no place to discuss the implications of that information, no place for politics, government, and public life to work.” Replacing this with under-informed opinion is a cause for concern for our democracy.
A questioner asked why doesn’t the press aggressively report about ACORN? Merritt replied “How do you know about ACORN?” The point is that newspapers have reported on ACORN.
Another question asked how much ideology has contributed to the problems of newspapers, the premise being that newspapers are out of touch with their readers. Merritt replied that newspapers do have an ideology — on their editorial pages. That’s where a newspaper expresses its opinion. There may be surveys that show that journalists identify more with liberal than conservative thought, but Merritt doesn’t believe that to be that case, in his experience. People who want to see things change are often attracted to journalism as a career.
In a response to a question, Merritt recommended contacting the newspaper with specific examples of bias, if readers sense it in the news reporting.
A question that I asked is whether the declining resources of the Wichita Eagle might create the danger that local government officials feel they can act under less scrutiny, or is this already happening? Merritt replied that this has been going on for some time. “The watchdog job of journalism is incredibly important and is terribly threatened.” When all resources go to cover what must be covered — police, accidents, etc. — there isn’t anything left over to cover what should be covered. There are many important stories that aren’t being covered because the “boots aren’t on the street anymore,” he said.
In response to another question, Merritt said that the “contradictions are too enormous” for government to use public money to support journalism. There may be conflicts of interest, too, in foundation ownership of newspapers. These may have to be tolerated in order to preserve journalism.