When it comes to news about the news, no news is good news.
The Rocky Mountain News recently wrapped up operations. The Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy protection. The New York Times and Washington Post have announced layoffs.
And the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which has been in production for more than 140 years, continues to produce news stories, but beginning this month it's doing so only online with a reduced staff. The Ann Arbor News will follow suit in July.
Are we really facing the demise of the great metropolitan daily?
It was the newspaper that became as powerful a force as any it covered, the kind of power Charles Foster Kane delighted in wielding in "Citizen Kane." It was the newspaper that brought news of crime and corruption to its readers, with an energy - and occasional manic recklessness - captured in the classic "His Girl Friday."
And it was the newspaper whose proudest moments came when it held the powerful to account - even bringing down "All The President's Men."
Hard as it for those of us whose day cannot begin without the newspaper, it is a medium that cannot survive without dramatic change. Indeed, it's not clear if it can survive as we know it at all.
But does that mean an enormous vacuum, an absence of the kind of information a democratic society needs? Or are there new sources emerging to do that work?
Longtime media watcher Michael Wolff said, "It's the end of the newspaper business right now at this point in time."
Why is Wolff predicting the imminent end of the newspaper?
Consider the facts: Just since 2000, daily newspaper circulation has dropped from 55 million to 50 million in the last two years … print ad revenue for papers dropped 28%, more than $11 billion - and that was before the recession really kicked in.
Classified ads, the most profitable of all, have migrated to the Web on sites like Craigslist.com.
(left: The final edition of the Rocky Mountain News.)
(AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
And while many newspapers have a home online, readers don't pay a dime to read it.
As for paying for newsprint? Just ask the next generation, like these Columbia School of Journalism students:
"The Internet is something that we constantly have with us," said one woman. "I constantly have my laptop on."
"I read the New York Times and Washington Post online for my national news," said one man.
"Realistically, I prefer the Internet, I do, because things are updated constantly," said another woman.
For newspaper veterans like former Des Moines Register editor Geneva Overholser, now dean of the USC School of Journalism, the potential loss of the newspaper is a clear and present danger to our civic life.
"Newsrooms in newspapers have been the predominant source of original reporting about what's going on in city hall, in classrooms, about Washington, about the international scene," Overholser said. "There'll be a time when we do really need to stand up and say, 'Wait a minute!' … and it's getting pretty close."
By contrast, Wolff is highly optimistic about the future, Just look around, he says:
"It is potentially an incredibly good time," Wolff said. "We have a much bigger audience than we've ever had before. We can do it faster, we can do it better, we can even do it prettier than before."
Wolff is putting his energies behind his ideas - he founded the Web site newser.com. But the site itself illustrates the uncertain nature of the future. Just about everything it offers is not his but content aggregated, as they say, from existing newspapers …¬the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Washington Post.
If these newspapers went away, what would he aggregate?
"Were they to go away, however, I guarantee that I can deliver the same information and at the same quality from a broad range of other sources," Wolff said.
There's evidence that some of those new sources are already here. Talkingpointsmemo.com is a blog with a liberal perspective. It broke the story last year about U.S. attorneys allegedly fired for political reasons. Instapundit.com, with a conservative-libertarian tilt, is another blog providing analysis and opinion.
And what about the "local angle"? (Editors always tell their reporters to "get the local angle.) Well, you can't get more local than the suburban community of Montclair, New Jersey, where Debra Galant and Liz George have launched a Web site, Baristanet.com.
"We are much more different because we are more dynamic," George said. "People are coming to have a conversation, and you cannot do it with a newspaper."
The site is produced from their living rooms and coffee shops, with news from (and opinions about) the comings and goings of their community, where, they say, the Web offers powerful advantages over the printed page … quite apart from the cost advantages of no paper, no presses, no delivery costs.
"We are there the minute you hear the question," Galant said. "The moment the helicopter is overhead and you wonder if a police search is going on. You are not going to have to wait for the paper on Thursday … you will go to Baristanet to see what is happening down the street."
Nancy Mehegan is one of their satisfied readers.
"Every day I go on it," she said. "The newspaper is kind of dry, you have a few letters to the editor, but here you have certain personalities, like the more local of us. I only read the paper for local garage sales now. There is something more vital about the online."
For Mark Porter, editor of the Montclair Times, baristanet.com represents something ... different.
"They are really like a lamprey eel feeding off the work of another entity," Porter said. "They have not gone to meetings; they have no gone to five or six sources that a newspaper reporter has done for the story. It really is pilferage."
So ... can the immediacy of the Web and the depth of the traditional newspaper somehow be fused?
In Philadelphia, entrepreneur Brian Tierney and a consortium of wealthy investors bought the 180-year-old Philadelphia Inquirer and the tabloid Daily News nearly three years ago. They've placed a multi-hundred million dollar bet that the papers can adapt and survive, even in print.
"We had a series recently on the EPA and the Bush administration; it took several months to do it, it cost a quarter of a million dollars to do that. I can't do that with two bloggers," Tierney said. "I can't do that the way all-news radio in this market does it, where they basically buy our paper and then paraphrase our stories every day. We are the originators of the investigative work that needs to be done."
But Tierney is facing the same dilemma every paper is: while he could save a fortune becoming Web-only, readers don't pay for it and advertisers won't pay nearly what they do for a print ad.
One answer, he says is that readers will have to start paying - either with a subscription or a so-called "micropayment," a few cents for each article they click on the web.
"Something," Tierney suggest, "not that much money, given the overall scope of what television bills and cell phone bills and cable bills are. And I think people will pay it, and so if you have unique content, I think you can get a premium for it. And that's what we have to do this year."
At the heart of Tierney's efforts to save the enterprise is the Web site Philly.com, where content from the Inquirer and the Daily News is combined with original fare.
But sit in at a meeting of the editorial staff, and you can watch what the revolution has wrought.
It sounds like the kind of editorial meeting any newspaper has. But there are big differences.
The Web site folds in text, video, and music. It updates constantly, changing its look and content by the hour - more opinion right after lunch, when users might need a jolt of caffeine.
Fusing print, video and the Web is drastically changing what reporters do - and must do.
"What that means to me is not only do you have to know how to report and write, you have to be a wire service reporter, and blog, and you have to know how to use a video camera, you have to know how to appear before a TV camera, be on the radio," said Inquirer editor Bill Marimow. "You really have to be a maestro of the media."
And that, says 30-year Inquirer veteran Gail Shister, comes with a cost, but one that has to be paid.
"I think the big downside of speed is that a lot of times, you don't get the quality control," Shister said. "You don't get enough editing. And you don't get the extra phone call to check something."
And while Shister mourns the potential loss of the printed page, she's a realist:
"I think there's no question that we're losing something, but it's generational," she said. "People under 50 never got into the ritual to start with. They don't know what they're missing because they've never had it. And more importantly, they don't care. I still get excited when I pick up a new paper and open it for the first time.
"But I'm a dinosaur. And I accept that!"
Right now, Brian Tierney's company is in bankruptcy. He argues that if the people who read the Inquirer pay for it, with a higher newsstand price, and a subscriber fee on the Web, the enterprise will survive … in print and online.
"Times change," Tierney said. "But you can either look in the rearview mirror and lament the past or you can say, you know, 'It's damn exciting!'"
But, what if the Inquirer - what if newspapers in general - don't survive?
Optimists are confident that new forces arise, that the next generation of reporters will be telling their editors to "Tear out the font page!" even if there aren't "pages" to tear out.
The more wary voices, like Geneva Overholser, say … maybe.
"This democracy might survive with a different-looking press," she said. "But I don't think we've figured out a complete menu that would replace newspapers."
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