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How we will survive without newspapers

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To save what's left of the newspaper industry, serial entrepreneur Steve Brill has launched a new startup, Journalism Online, which will help news organizations charge for their digital content. So far he has convinced at least 506 people in America that this is a terrific idea. They're all publishers who have agreed to participate in the venture, but you have to start somewhere, right?

In related news, the Associated Press says it's on the verge of creating articles that can perform investigative journalism even after they've been filed—a "tracking beacon" embedded in these stories will alert the A.P. when websites quote them without authorization. Meanwhile, Dan Rather thinks we should add "editor in chief" to the growing list of Barack Obama's duties. "I want the president to convene a nonpartisan, blue-ribbon commission to assess the state of the news as an institution and an industry and to make recommendations for improving and stabilizing both," the former CBS anchorman said in an August Washington Post op-ed. "This is a crisis that, with no exaggeration, threatens our democratic republic at its core."

Do you want to know the really bad news? Despite all the layoffs, buy-outs, and shutdowns that have afflicted the newspaper industry in the last year, there are still 46,700 newsroom employees working at the nation's 1,411 dailies, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors' 2009 census. That means we've still got years of alarmist op-ed pieces, Hail Mary revenue schemes, and Hail Congress calls for subsidies and rule changes before every last school board meeting in America goes unmonitored and we descend into chaos, corruption, and life without paid classified ads.

Newspapers, their passionate boosters maintain, are a kind of civic Pilates, the institution that keeps the core of our democratic republic as tight and toned as Megan Fox's midsection. TV news can show us war zones, and radio news may offer us aerial assessments of traffic jams, but newspaper news does the real heavy lifting of journalism. It sorts fact from rumor. It shines light on government murk and corporate malfeasance and helps our citizenry make informed and rational decisions. Without healthy newspapers, we're just Myanmar with better department stores and less stylish military uniforms.

That's the rallying cry of the newspaper industry's saviors, anyway. As Jack Shafer memorably put it in Slate, this narrative reduces newspapers to a "compulsory cheat sheet for democracy." They deserve better than that. Throughout the 20th century, our daily broadsheets and tabloids played a far richer role in our culture. They deepened our spiritual lives with horoscopes. They kept our minds sharp with crossword puzzles and the Jumble. They helped us track our favorite TV shows and paid for themselves by offering great deals on detergent. In their lighter moments, they delighted us with the cartoon antics of lasagna-loving cats.

Yet all that stuff has made the transition to the Web just fine. In fact, the only component of traditional newspapers that the Web has thoroughly destroyed is the classifieds. Those ads used to be pithy and reliable, because it used to cost money to place one. If you had to fork over $20 to sell a couch, you wouldn't bother trying to sell some smelly, worn flea farm. Now, when it costs nothing to attempt to unload it, what have you got to lose except some potential buyer's valuable time? Thanks to Craigslist, the once-useful domain of classified ads has become a haven for junk peddlers, scam artists, poor spellers, and the long-winded.

News, on the other hand, is doing great on the Web. While newspaper loyalists are forever touting the original reporting that appears in your morning fish wrap as the factor that distinguishes it from the hordes of opinion-spouting bloggers, what the Web has really revealed is how much territory newspapers have left either underreported or completely untouched. Newspapers never systematically reviewed school-teachers, for example, and now they've been scooped by the angry third-grade muckrakers who post at RateMyTeacher.com. They never systematically reviewed the lying, cheating "dumpster dawgs" that women should avoid at all costs, but the citizen journalists at DontDateHimGirl.com cover such territory thoroughly, supplying names, addresses, employer information, and more. When I want to learn something about the new hardware store that just opened in my neighborhood, I find the answers at Yelp.com, not in the San Francisco Chronicle. When I want to know what all those sirens that woke me up last night were responding to, I search for clues on Everyblock.com. Call this information trivial if you like, but it's certainly serving the local public interest in a way that, say, a New York Times dispatch from the front lines of the fish wars on East Africa's Migingo Island can't touch.

That's not to say that old-fashioned reporting isn't hard and valuable work. It is, and as David Simon, former reporter turned champion of soon-to-be-former reporters and creator of The Wire, explained at John Kerry's Senate panel on the "future of journalism" last May, it's no job for part-timers and gadflies. It "requires daily, full-time commitment by trained men and women who return to the same beats day in and day out until the best of them know everything with which a given institution is contending."

But it's not as if newspapers are the only entities that recognize the value of reporting. Half a decade ago, at the height of blogomania, professional online journalists may have been the unicorns of the Web, but now they're becoming relatively common. Give at least some of the credit to TMZ, the celebrity gossip site funded by AOL and Warner Bros. When it launched in 2005, it put boots on the ground in the mean cul-de-sacs of Bel Air and Malibu, and the huge readership it attracted almost overnight by breaking big stories such as Mel Gibson's DUI arrest and Lindsay Lohan's SUV rampage served as a vivid reminder that even in the age of blogs and social networks, paid staffers and original reporting still have value.

In short order, we've seen the rise of Politico, which launched in 2007 with a mandate to report on Capitol Hill with a TMZ-like intensity and now has an editorial staff of 75. We've seen the creation of ProPublica.org, the "non-profit newsroom" funded by the billionaire left-wing philanthropists Herbert and Marion Sandler to produce work that "shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong." The Huffington Post, like a horrible disease or an endangered species, relied upon the altruism of celebrity volunteers in its earliest days, but now it has a paid editorial staff of 60 (along with 3,000 unpaid contributors). The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit set to launch in November with a mandate of serving as the state's watchdog, has hired away editors and reporters from Texas Monthly, the Dallas Morning News, the Houston Chronicle, and the El Paso Times

In an effort to artificially preserve the power of dying monopolists, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) introduced a bill in March that would give tax breaks to traditional newspapers if they converted to nonprofit status. That same month, John Nichols and Robert McChesney, authors of Saving Journalism: The Soul of Democracy, published an essay in The Nation calling for "government intervention" in the form of $60 billion worth of "tax policies, credit policies and explicit subsidies" to save newspapers and educate schoolkids about what "differentiates good journalism from the other stuff."

Oh, for the days when the free and independent press was a little more circumscribed! That, in the end, is the theme that has always underscored the case for newspapers in the Web era, even when they weren't on their deathbeds yet: We need them to protect us from how free and independent public discourse has become! But we don't. Journalism may be in flux right now, but the long-term trend is toward more transparency, more news, a better-informed citizenry. We're entering a new Light Ages, and when the last newspaper dies, thousands of sources will be rushing to break the sad news first. One of them might even be Dan Rather. His HDNet series Dan Rather Reports has a Twitter account, and one of his staffers posts to it regularly. 

Contributing Editor Greg Beato (gbeato@soundbitten.com) writes from San Francisco.