As a copyboy in 1954, fresh out of college, I delivered mail to Hanson Baldwin, then the Times’s highly respected military correspondent. When Baldwin wrote a news story or a piece of analysis, it was read in the Pentagon and in Congress. They had to read him because his years of coverage and his insights made him as expert as top generals and civilian defense officials. I didn’t know it then, but those days had a major influence on my approach to journalism.

I am a Democrat, and everyone knows it. No one is more aware of it than I am as I write stories for The Washington Post. I worked for Senator J. William Fulbright twice in the 1960s, when I was lucky to run two eighteen-month Foreign Relations Committee investigations for him. The first grew out of magazine articles I had written about lobbying in the U.S. by foreign governments. The second focused on military involvement in foreign policy, and grew out of discussions I had with Fulbright during my initial time with him. Those two sabbaticals were among the most important and enlightening years of my life, and influenced my view of reporting on government. They showed me how little I knew as a reporter about how government really worked.

Part of the explanation for this lack of knowledge is the emergence of the idea, among reporters in Washington and perhaps elsewhere, that we should avoid socializing or developing friendships with public officials—even those who are our peers. As a result of this artificial separation, public figures remain one-dimensional to many journalists; they have no wives, children, or lives outside their professional positions.

Not to me. After fifty years of living and working in Washington, I’ve had personal friends in Congress, on federal court benches, in high government positions, even in the White House. We should be measured by our work, not by what we say or do elsewhere. I certainly hope that as witnesses to wars, civil-rights riots, peace marches, famines, and terrorist events these past decades, we all have developed opinions which at times we may discuss or even argue about—or we just are not human.

Such experiences make us better observers and thus better reporters. With more and more PR peddled as news, journalists need the experience to sort out what really is news, and to deliver it in context.

As we’ve seen, fewer national and local newspapers are in the hands of fewer companies that in turn provide newspapers that are less appealing and relevant to people who have limited time to read them. And with the arrival of first the Internet and now the financial downturn, advertisers have panicked. The result is far less money to support serious journalism.

Although I have primarily been a reporter the past fifty years, I have also been a close observer of the financial side of the media business. In my college days, I bought stock in The New Yorker. I was an initial investor when Clay Felker started New York magazine, and when The New York Review of Books began. In 1970, I spent a couple of years unsuccessfully trying to start a national newspaper to be produced in Washington and printed on local presses in college cities across the country. From 1971 through 1975, I was executive editor of The New Republic, and put together a group that was to purchase the magazine after the 1976 presidential election, though we were outbid. I returned to The Washington Post in 1975 and today am a consultant to the company as well as a reporter for the newspaper.

I describe this background to justify talking about the finances of the newspaper business. In the early 1960s, Phillip Graham, at the time the president of The Washington Post Company, told me that the Post had just begun to turn a profit, but that he and Eugene Meyer, his father-in-law, who had originally purchased the paper, considered it a business much like a public utility. And as such, they thought making a profit of 7 percent would be a more than fair return on investment. This philosophy has guided me ever since.

Walter Pincus is a reporter for The Washington Post, and a consultant to The Washington Post Company. This article is adapted from a lecture he gave in February in Berlin to The American Academy.