Life After Newspapers in the Digital City

Last Updated Aug 15, 2008 5:13 PM EDT


Boston Globe reporter Tania deLuzuriaga quotes a Portland, Maine, resident as asking, plaintively, "Can you even be a major city without a daily paper?" That's a question hanging over every city, small or large, in the U.S. these days. The Portland Press Herald has been struggling; advertising revenues are down 19 percent this year, and circulation is falling steadily.

The Press Herald has endured four rounds of layoffs in the last 12 months and newsroom staff morale has tanked.

All over the country, the impending demise of the daily newspaper raises many serious questions, including these:

  • How can residents find out what is going on locally?
  • Will investigative work on the local level survive?
  • What kind of reliable record will be kept of the area for future use?
  • How can communities be created around common interests and passions?
Of course, the web offers solutions to most of these questions, with the exception of local investigative news coverage. As much as I enjoy the work of many bloggers and "citizen journalists," few of them seem capable of investigative reporting about local power structures.

Typically, it is people who don't like investigative reporting who dismiss the demise as newspapers as irrelevant to the overall health of our society. I disagree, which is why I continue to chronicle the job cuts, advertising revenue losses, and falling circulation of newspapers so closely.

The conventional wisdom is that the information technology revolution is what's killing off these publications. If that were true, it would be truly ironic that computer scientists continue to develop technologies that are also helping save our history, rather than watch it turn to dust. CAPTCHA stands for the "Completely Automated Public Turing Test to Tell Computers and Humans Apart," and has proved to be an effective tool against Spam, bots and the like.

Researchers at Carnegie Mellon then noticed that there are parallels between CAPTCHAs and the problem words in scanned works: in both cases, the letters were distorted so much that computers weren't capable of recognizing the word. So, they created a system, reCAPTCHA, in which words that weren't recognized by character recognition software were distorted slightly and converted into CAPTCHAs. This program is now is being used to digitize old damaged texts and newspapers.

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.