Family, friends and professional colleagues of James Briggs McClatchy gathered here last week to celebrate a remarkable life of public service. The noble legacy of that life dedicated to the highest ideals of the newspaper profession stretches from California’s Central Valley to the farthest reaches of Latin America.
It’s a story worth recounting of a life extraordinarily well lived; a life exemplifying time-honored virtues so often lost in today’s commercialized journalism.
To all who knew him, Jim McClatchy’s unpretentious wish of how he wanted to be remembered came as no surprise.
"Put down that I was a newspaperman," McClatchy said shortly before he died May 26 at the age of 85. It was a description he bore with pride for all of his professional life.
Born to one of California’s pioneering newspaper families, McClatchy paid all of his dues and more in the profession he loved. He was, by turns, a local reporter for The Sacramento Bee, desk editor, Washington correspondent, and later chairman of the board and publisher of McClatchy Newspapers.
McClatchy saw his newspapers as much more than merely a business. To him, they represented a public trust.
In an address to editors and publishers in 1993, McClatchy said this about that public trust:
"The philosophical basis on which a newspaper rests is extremely important. Why is it published? Only to turn a profit? Or does it have another purpose? The answer is yes, our newspapers have philosophical roots.
"What has been this unique character? For one, a caring about the way things are for the ordinary person, caring about the way the world is, the way the state is, the way the city is."
He then reflected on the origins of his family’s Bee newspapers dating back to California’s settler era in the mid-19th century.
"The first Bee was founded by men who had a cause, who fervently believed in a just society. It cared about the things that would make this new community a just society – affordable bank interest rates, land for settlers, an honest court system, cheap electricity when it arrived and clean water, trees and parks, good schools and fair treatment for the ordinary man."
That’s as good and plain-spoken a newspaper credo as any youwill ever read. And, as McClatchy added, that set of beliefs – we’d call it a "mission statement" today – is "a still-living connection to the issues and challenges and problems that existed 135 years ago and still exist today."
In time, Jim McClatchy’s idealism and sense of public purpose would spread far beyond California’s Central Valley.
If a free press, freedom of expression and newspapers with integrity and a commitment to public service were vital to building a just society in California, they were no less essential elsewhere. This was especially true in Latin America, a continent struggling to overcome the often unjust legacies of a colonial era that lasted 300 years.
Jim McClatchy devoted more than a little of his time during the last decades of his life to promoting the ideals of a free and independent press throughout Latin America. As an active member and then president of the Inter American Press Association, a group representing hundreds of newspapers throughout the Western Hemisphere, McClatchy was an original drafter of a remarkable and historic document codifying the principles of press freedom.
Together with Kansas publisher Edward Seaton, McClatchy organized a Hemispheric Conference on Free Speech held at Mexico City’s Chapultepec Castle in 1994.
The charter they and 130 distinguished participants collaborated in writing and approving came to be known as the Declaration of Chapultepec. A clarion statement of press freedoms, freedom of information and freedom of expression, the Declaration of Chapultepec was, in effect, a 1st Amendment for the Americas.
Over the ensuing decade, the Declaration of Chapultepec has been signed by 29 of the Western Hemisphere’s 35 heads of state. For hundreds of millions of people across two continents, the fundamental freedoms this document affirms can be a lodestar far into the future.
For Jim McClatchy, the Declaration of Chapultepec surely seemed an extension of the traditions and ideals of his family’s newspapers – from Sacramento, Modesto and Fresno across the whole of the Americas.
In concluding his 1993 address to editors and publishers, McClatchy offered these closing thoughts:
"It is terribly important that these values and views and ideas and traditions, some of which are odd or idiosyncratic, be kept alive and respected. We need to be true to what we have inherited. We need to preserve the values from the past that give us strength today. That won’t happen without conscious effort…"
Let that be the fitting epitaph for a fine man and the noble ideals he espoused. Journalism today could use more, much more, of the same devotion to the public good.