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Originally published November 18, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified December 11, 2007 at 2:00 PM

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James Vesely / The Democracy Papers

The handoff: Newspapers in the digital age

We know that newspapers are struggling to survive. The story of newspapers today is of layoffs, declining or static circulation numbers, and the spiral of an entire industry.

The Democracy Papers is a series of articles, essays and editorial opinion examining threats to our freedoms of speech. Technology has created space for more voices, yet fewer and fewer are heard.

The American press and media are being decimated by consolidation. This transformation from many owners into five or six large corporations and the lessening of small outlets for radio, newspapers, magazines and music are chilling a once robust marketplace of ideas. What should Americans do? This series explores the arguments and the backlash.

Democracy Papers online archive:
www.seattletimes/thedemocracypapers

Daily Democracy, the Democracy Papers blog: blog.seattletimes.nwsource.com/dailydemocracy.

Information

Today's Word on Journalism:

www.hardnewscafe.usu.edu/

Democracy Papers online archive: www.seattletimes.com/thedemocracypapers

We know that newspapers are struggling to survive. The story of newspapers today is of layoffs, declining or static circulation numbers, and the spiral of an entire industry.

The collapse of the Knight-Ridder chain and the subsequent sell-off of some of its stellar newspapers by bid-winner McClatchy appear to be the current trend of a defensive and moribund medium.

Hope, for those of us still in it, rests on the belief that readers are willingly turning from fiber to cyber — a replacement of the method but not the methodology of reporting and editing.

The modern newspaper is a unique creation of 19th-century technology. It is big and cumbersome and built of steel and barrels of ink. It is an industrial plant, on which someone has placed a reporter's hat and a press card — its only reason for being.

Consider the 19th- and early-20th-century model and you will understand how we are groping in the dark:

As late as the 1970s, reporters for such papers as The Baltimore Sun or the Los Angeles Times fanned across the country and the world. They picked up phones and filed copy from a dozen datelines. Wire service dispatches were bundled from the ether by AP, UPI, Reuters and APF copy-desk editors of sure hands and legendary knowledge of their cities and the globe.

The information was so carefully edited that stories fit on the page by the gap of one tiny grid line, a fraction of an inch. Headlines were measured by the difference in width between an "l" and a "w." When it was all done, hundreds of people had produced the product. Yet, for that labor-intensive, world-spanning product, for the last half-mile the delivery system was a 13-year-old on a bicycle working after school.

That's an afternoon newspaper in the dusk of the preoptic age.

We know the present delivery system is antiquated, even if upgraded from a bicycle in the afternoon to a Subaru at 5:30 in the morning. But, that is also a closed delivery system; it does not deliver your individual message, or the message of someone who did not come through the hallowed gates of the newspaper. The message belonged to us.

No more. The message is a few clicks away — an array of messages that would befuddle the finest espionage organization. What is true, what is not? What is deliberately untrue, and what is planted to be discovered as true? What is truth, anyway — isn't that just someone's opinion?

Sifting for truth

Well, no. Reporters know that truth is fleeting, and that it changes in the palm of the hand like mercury. For just a moment, something is true. It is true because it is verifiable by other sources and true because of the checks and counterchecks that look for truth amid the haze of events. It was that verifiable truth that kept newspapers coming to the kitchen table.

Foremost, a decent newspaper is the enemy of rumor and a citizen of its place. Blogs are not the enemy of rumor, nor is talk radio or cable television. Rumor is not the substitute for truth, and it takes journalism to sift for truth.

We don't have a newspaper named for the major river tributary system of Brazil. But, we have the Santa Cruz Sentinel, the Anchorage Daily News, the Dayton Daily News, the Courier-Journal of Louisville, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The St. Petersburg Times, The Chattanooga Times and, at very different capitals of the world, The Times of London, The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and The Times of India. Newspapers are uniquely statements of place.

For this region, readers and viewers from all over the world seek out answers about four things: Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks and Amazon. Whenever those four words are mentioned, the answer comes back: Seattle.

We live in a world that has grown accustomed to the death of distance. Time matters, but not distance, since our conversations with readers in Sydney, Tel Aviv, South Africa, Asia, as well as Kent and Queen Anne — they number among the authors of our 45,000 letters to the editor each year — are about how and why The Times reported what it did that day.

The question of place is inherent in the deeper question of what will happen to North America's newspapers. A couple of things are emerging: The big are getting bigger and the smallest will survive.

Just a few months, or years, ago, it seemed we were heading toward the Big Six: Time Warner, News Corp., New York Times holdings, Hearst, Disney and Chicago Tribune companies.

Now, we have newspapers in Philadelphia and Minneapolis that were shed by the chains and emerged as privately held companies. We don't know how they will do; the initial picture is not rosy. One model is possibly the privately held, independent newspaper, which is based on a locale instead of a monopolistic chain.

Another model is the smallest niche of newspapers, and the hardest for bloggers to replace: The Bend Bulletin of Oregon; the growing, innovative and locally owned Daily Herald newspapers of Chicago's Northwest suburbs; the papers of the small, agrarian counties that stitch together Illinois to Nebraska and across to the Great Basin, as well as township New England and retirement communities in Florida and Arizona. Each can serve, and derive profit from, being the smallest and smartest songbird in the forest.

Transformation

At this Times — the one here in Seattle and Washington state — the catastrophe of the optical/digital age almost caught up with us, but we are well into the age of transformation and finding ways to meld various journalism and circulation functions into a product.

So far, for newspapers, the Internet has not been monetized enough to carry the capital and human financials of the newspaper city room. The three-legged stool of newspaper profits — classified advertising, big circulation and low-cost paper — has been replaced by "Star Trek" Scotty's single transporter beam of information, a single beam of narrow interests, now you see it, now you don't. It can make a story appear out of thin air.

I see Craigslist as a negative-editorial product. Why? Because it claims the profits normally shifted to the newsroom. Without the obligations of journalism, e-commerce becomes the anti-newspaper.

Media companies, especially newspapers, are by default nearly the lone agents of the democratic form of government.

Profits and democracy

We don't know when profits are going to return, or how.

We can't rely on the First Amendment to provide us with a paycheck; the First Amendment is not a financial model. And yet, as newspaper men and women, we return to the articles of democracy to give us a place at the table, and with it the notion that we will find a meal.

Without democracy — which means not just freedom but the robust life in a democratic state — the free press cannot survive, no matter how rich it gets. Indeed, I can imagine a fat and prosperous press without the freedoms of contradiction and accuracy. It would not be a free press, just a profitable one. Its people might think themselves free, yet would not be.

A warning

From "Today's Word on Journalism ... " comes this trenchant warning, from a small newspaper with very large ideas:

"While the newspaper is expendable, the tradition it represents and the information it supplies are not. The evolution from Gutenberg to Gates may be irreversible, but as new media replace the old ones there's no official passing of the torch of responsibility, no automatic transfer of the sacred trust the First Amendment placed upon the free press and its proprietors. In fact, the handoff, such as it is, has been fumbled very badly. As newspapers are eviscerated, marginalized and abandoned, they leave a vacuum that nothing and no one is prepared to fill — a crisis on its way to becoming a tragedy. When railroads and riverboats began to go the way of the passenger pigeon, no one was harmed except the work force and a few big investors who had failed to diversify. If professional journalism vanishes along with the newspapers, this thing we call a constitutional democracy becomes a banana republic."

— Hal Crowther, columnist, The Independent Weekly (North Carolina)

James F. Vesely's column appears Sunday on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: jvesely@seattletimes.com"; for a podcast Q&A with the author, go to Opinion at seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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