Take the rather Bealeian intimations Associated Press CEO Dean Singleton expressed last week (we’re mad as hell, we’re not going to take this anymore, et cetera)—in a speech (and, later, an interview) whose discussion of paid content pulsed with moralistic undertones. Take, also, Vanity Fair’s recent profile of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., in which the tension between mythology and reality formed a running conceit through Mark Bowden’s narrative—one manifested most obviously in the person of Sulzberger himself:

Arthur is motivated, as he himself says, not by wealth but by value. He believes, to be sure, that wealth follows from value, but you can see, even as he says it, that the wealth part is not what drives him. Journalism drives him. The Times’s reputation and influence drive him. He is not just a newspaper publisher and a chairman of the board. He is Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., and the pride he feels in that name doesn’t have anything to do with how much is in his bank account.

Sulzberger—whose person and pedigree represent, with an almost Dickensian clarity, journalism’s past, present, and future—is in many ways an appropriate ambassador for the clash between the sacred and the secular in our thinking about journalism’s future. Indeed, one reason, Clay Shirky argues, that the Times, and newspapers in general, reacted slowly to the financial plight befalling them—besides the most obvious: that they are large institutions, and tend as such to be hindered by the weight of their own lumbering bureaucracy—was that the plight in question was, quite literally, unimaginable to them. Unimaginable in the same fuzzy-vague way that, regardless of your personal beliefs, a world without religion is unimaginable. (Living for today…ooh, ooh…) Conceiving of a world without newspapers—a world whose creative evolution would involve, essentially, the sky falling down from beneath one’s feet—would require, as Shirky had it, “thinking the unthinkable.”

Indeed. If nobody really expected that, you know, copies of the Plain Dealer would be there at the End of Days among all the cockroaches and Styrofoam packing peanuts, many of us—including, surely, newspaper executives themselves—assumed that the institution of newspaper journalism would survive the extinction of both its platform and its business model. If we’d taken it for granted that US Weekly and its ilk would survive unto the breach, ad infinitum if ad nauseam (“Cockroaches: They’re Just Like Us!”), we had also largely assumed that the civically important journalism we’ve come to rely on—in ways large and small, direct and indirect, and so myriad that we tend, as Paul Starr pointed out, to take them entirely for granted—would survive, as well. Such journalism is the good guy, after all; and the good guy can’t just die.

It can’t, at any rate, per a conception of journalism itself as something essential to civic life. “If we take seriously the notion of newspapers as a fourth estate or a fourth branch of government,” Starr noted, then “the end of the age of newspapers implies a change in our political system itself.” In this way, the public service journalism that newspapers represent, like public education, adopts the aegis of moral entitlement. Such journalism isn’t merely a commodity, the rhetoric goes; it is a public trust that, while it need not be sheltered entirely from the market’s invisible hand, should be protected, at the very least, from its middle finger.

Would that it could be. But, then, thinking that articulates itself in the subjunctive, not to mention the subjective, is rarely of much use when applied to vernacular realities. (“Since when is a business plan built on ‘should?’” Jeff Jarvis asked, quite reasonably, last week.) A moralistic mindset—when it comes to journalism’s business end, at least—hurts the discussion more than it helps it. Journalism is, after all, an industry; even at their most high-minded, newspapers are still Of The People, and all that. “You’ll miss us when we’re gone,” Clay Shirky wrote, may not be much of a business model; but neither, I’d add, is inarticulate indignation.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.