The news is breaking — who will fix it?

Less than a decade ago, at the dawn of our brave new century, the American newspaper was doing a robust business. Newsrooms at major publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post were brimming with reporters; advertising rates were healthy; and, despite the rapid rise of electronic media in the late ’90s, news websites, still in their infancy, were no match for a fully formed print publication. The future of the news would involve the Internet, an average editor might concede, but it seemed a long way off before the new medium would do battle with the old one.

How times have changed. In the last few years, on the wings of widespread high-speed Internet connections and the staggering amount of information now found online — from newspapers’ free websites to blogs to link aggregators to online magazines — an entire generation has come of age in the era of free, instantaneously updated news. Newspaper subscription rates have plummeted as a result, and with them, the print-ad revenue that makes the publications tick. And the classified section, once the go-to destination for the jobless, the carless, and the lovelorn, has been all but decimated by Craigslist and other sites. Add to the already dire climate a severe advertising crunch brought on by a historic economic downturn, and all of a sudden the media revolution that once looked like a distant spectre is in full force. Read the news (online, for full symbolic value) and, seemingly every day, there are stories of layoffs, contractions, or dismal financial predictions at a newspaper. A small sample of the misery, just in the past month: the Seattle Times ditched its print edition; the Rocky Mountain News shuttered altogether; Detroit’s newspapers now deliver three days a week; and, just Tuesday, the troubled Chicago Sun-Times filed for bankruptcy, joining its competitor, the Tribune, in Chapter 11 unity. Even the New York Times, the apotheosis of news journalism, has had to face layoffs and accept punishing loans it would have scoffed at in the past.

The question on everyone’s lips — simply put, “What will happen to newspapers?” — is not close to being answered. The only thing for sure, as evidenced by the events of the last ten years in media, is that nobody knows what the future holds. So, in place of any kind of certainty, what we have in abundance is conjecture, speculation, and prescriptions from people who write for a living (and thus have unsurprisingly strong opinions on the issue).

For those who love them, mourning for newspapers is the default position. But if newspapers ceased to function as we know them, what would we actually be losing? The answer isn’t necessarily straightforward. In a plaintive piece for The Nation, John Nichols says that, from the very beginning, the founding fathers intended the fourth estate — the media — to be a check on the rich and powerful. Paul Starr concurs, opining that “a new age of corruption” is about to dawn without the news media to function as a counterweight. But Jack Shafer at Slate dissents, contending that the country survived just fine for its first hundred years with a press that functioned primarily as political advocate.

As for prescriptions — well, nobody has a foolproof one, and opinions range widely. One popular recommendation is that, after years of giving away their product for free online, and hoping in vain that online ad revenue would eventually prove sustainable — newspapers should finally start charging people. Good reporting, the argument goes, is expensive, and it deserves to be rewarded financially, so online readers who value such a commodity should fork over some dough. David Carr of the New York Times forcefully argues that the policy of giving away content for free was a huge mistake, writing that it “has brought the industry millions of eyeballs and a return that doesn’t cover the coffee budget of some newsrooms.” He points to publications, like the Wall Street Journal, that have successfully implemented charges for tiered access. And in a cover story for Time, veteran journalist Walter Isaacson goes a similar route, suggesting “micropayments” — small charges for accessing single stories or sections of a newspaper. But the popular media blog Gawker disagrees, arguing that that system has never worked, and that people will balk at paying for information they could get elsewhere on the Web. Some, meanwhile, want nothing less than government intervention to solve the problem. Nichols proposes tax benefits and bailouts for newspapers, so that they can continue to document malfeasance in government and industry. Indeed, Congress is already making overtures — Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland has proposed a “bailout” of newspapers that would classify them as nonprofits, stripping them of any advocacy role.

Whether or not newspapers figure out how to survive — and some people still think they can, including the chairman of the Washington Post — there are those less interested in how we get our news than in the breadth of it. In his speech at the South by Southwest media festival, writer Steven Berlin Johnson compared newspapers to an old-growth forest. He recalls the dearth of information available about his beloved Apple when he came of age in the ’80s, and the flood of resources he can access now. He contends that, in the big picture, we’re better off than we were then; that blogs and websites now in their infancy can fill in the holes created by the collapse of traditional media; and that the newspapers of the future can function as a guide to the wealth of information available online. All in all, he is generally “bullish on the future of news.”

Whatever happens, more media upheaval is in the offing — and anyone who pines for a return to simpler times will probably be disappointed. As Clay Shirky puts it in his essay that touches on many of the salient issues of the newspaper collapse: “When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.”

Image: Ranveig Thattai