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Originally published September 6, 2006 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 6, 2006 at 1:57 AM

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Ease of the Internet discounts cost of serious reporting

The respected international newsmagazine, The Economist, raises in its Aug. 26 issue the question, "Who killed the newspaper? " As Mark Twain...

Special to The Times

THE respected international newsmagazine, The Economist, raises in its Aug. 26 issue the question, "Who killed the newspaper?"

As Mark Twain might have remarked, reports of the death of newspapers are greatly exaggerated. But The Economist is the latest to ponder whether newspapers as we know them are destined for history's dustbin, and whether new forms of journalism will become permanent.

Having studied and taught journalism history, I've seen one pattern repeated for 300 years: No journalistic form actually dies. They adapt, adjust and morph into new forms.

The death of radio was predicted when television appeared; national magazines were declared dead as well. Both forms survived by creating niches, marketing to a more select audience and delivering more reliable customers to advertisers. Some would say that TV killed newsreels, those movie-house staples of the World War II era, but their technology and personnel created early TV news.

Newspapers have survived radio, television and now the Internet. They don't look the same as they did in 1950, nor is the content the same — there is much more emphasis on lifestyle, sports, entertainment, columnists and photography.

But there is truth that has remained, from the days of James Gordon Bennett and Horace Greeley in the 1830s through William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer in the Yellow Journalism wars of the 1890s and on through Woodward and Bernstein and Watergate in the 1970s, and that is that great newspapers are built on great reporting.

That is also the difference between newspapers and most other forms of journalism today, and it is what Americans should worry about as the fortunes of newspapers fade in the light of competition from new media forms.

Reporting is the indispensable element of journalism and of democracy. It is what distinguishes a free press from one kept by government or business. It is the difference between journalism and public relations.

It is also the hardest work that journalists do, and the most expensive. A $15-per-hour clerk can comb over press releases and deliver them in organized form; calendars and lists are cheap to produce by any literate person.

But the same hirelings cannot be sent to Pakistan to follow a Northwest aid project, as The Times did recently, or dispatched to Boeing or Microsoft to probe beyond public-relations handouts, or comb through complex public documents to discover cases of public mismanagement or abuse.

It is that type of journalism that is essential to a democracy. A few people might be willing to rely on Donald Rumsfeld for news from Iraq, but most will want a more objective source. Good reporting is often uncomfortable, but it is essential for intelligent decisions.

Other media forms have excellent examples of investigative reporting: NPR in radio and The New Yorker among magazines stand out, as do individual reporters on many venues. But only newspapers are consistently and broadly built on the shoe leather of face-to-face interviews and document research. Any decline in this work threatens the informed electorate essential to a democracy.

The Internet threatens reporting, because it contributes little to the cost of this expensive work. The costs and risks are in the actual gathering of news — as opposed to its distribution.

If you ask young people where they get their news, they are likely to say, "Google or Yahoo!" But Google and Yahoo! are not journalism — they simply redirect the work of real reporters, in effect stealing and profiting from their work.

If you surfed Google or Yahoo! on the Katrina anniversary recently, you found a wonderland of stories and pictures. But none of them originated with a Google or Yahoo! reporter. The hard work of reporters in New Orleans, Houston or Miami was plucked from newspaper Web pages, properly attributed with a link to the story — but neither the paper nor the reporter was paid a dime.

Newspapers do benefit slightly from visits to their site directed by Google or Yahoo!, but it's estimated that it takes at least 10 to 20 Internet visitors to make up for the loss of a single print reader.

As newspapers lose advertising revenue because of a decline in readership, the great temptation is to cut the most expensive personnel — the veteran investigative reporters and teams, the bureau in Iraq or Washington — and hire writers to cover entertainment, self-help and sports. Such coverage is great — I read it, too — but the latest football score or "American Idol" winner won't help you decide whom to elect in the fall.

Great democracies depend on great reporting, and we abandon either at our peril.

Floyd J. McKay, a journalism professor emeritus at Western Washington University, is a regular contributor to Times editorial pages. E-mail him at floydmckay@yahoo.com

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