Filthy lucre: The publisher of

Filthy lucre
: The publisher of the McClatchy newspapers, James McClatchy, argues that you shouldn’t call newspapers “products” or “properties.”

This thought, that a newspaper is a “product” which exists to serve corporate strategic goals, has been expressed more and more commonly in recent years. These comments would be unremarkable coming from the CEO of Procter & Gamble, but not from a publisher, employee, owner or anybody connected to a newspaper.

Newspapers have dramatically different qualities than almost any other commercial enterprise. A newspaper has a personality that can change from time to time; it has policies relating to elections, wars and taxes; it has responsibilities to the community of which it is a part. It has opinions and can communicate with humans, and participate in debates and discussions about almost anything. In all this, of course, it can make mistakes.

A newspaper can have dignity, and be entertaining, and be a responsible part of the best system of government mankind has ever seen. Or it can be trashy or careless, ignore social, political and economic problems, or be a lackey to special interests, helping to erode the foundation of our democracy. So please, don’t call a newspaper a “product.”

Neither are newspapers “properties,” such as a slaughterhouse, a car wash, a golf course or an office building. Newspapers are liked or disliked, and perform in many ways like people. Great numbers of readers consider their hometown newspapers to have a significant role in their lives, to be a personal friend, or a personal enemy, a regular and important visitor.

The commercial terms “properties” or “products” dehumanize newspapers, making them impersonal businesses without souls. The Sacramento Bee is not a property or product. It is an institution -an exceedingly fine one; a proud newspaper with a heart.

That’s all very noble and I don’t disagree with anything he says about the goals and attributes of papers (and tv shows and magazines and web sites and books and all media properties that find their value with their audiences in their credibility and craft).

Still, media properties are products that are answerable to their customers and their owners and those who forget that inevitably lose touch with their audiences, their audiences’ needs, and their real mission. A newspaper or any other media property does have to make money. It does that by serving the needs of the audience and staying in touch with those needs. Filthy commerce is actually an efficient way of making that happen: If people stop buying your paper or magazine or watching your TV show then you have to learn, eventually, that you are not serving their needs.

When I hear journalists act as if they operate outside of capitalism, I worry for them. This is a business. It is a noble business — just like, say, medicine and pharmaceuticals and for that matter farming — but it is a business nonetheless and there’s nothing wrong with that.