Can the news be saved?

Newspapers are struggling to live with the Internet

As you know, daily newspapers are in a bind. Most have bought into the notion that content should be provided free of charge on the Internet. Ironically, they now have more readers than ever before, but fewer subscribers and less advertising and revenue. The New York Times, for example, reaches more than 20 million online readers but has fewer than 1 million subscribers.

These changes are having profound effects on the quality of journalism at a time when we need all the good reporting we can get. Foreign bureaus are closing, statehouse reporters are disappearing, newsrooms are half the size they once were, and investigative reporting—the heart and soul of good journalism—is becoming increasingly rare.

Some newspapers are regretting their initial decision to give away their content online and, like the Chico Enterprise-Record, are trying, or preparing to try, to charge for some of it. Others, like the Sacramento Bee, continue to invest in their website in the hope that eventually it will generate sufficient revenue to offset print losses.

You would think that the savants at places like Google would be delighted with this phenomenon, since it represents the victory of their new medium over an old one, but that’s not the case. In fact, as James Fallows explains in his excellent “How to Save the News” in the June issue of the Atlantic magazine, they’re actively working to figure out ways to keep newspapers—and reporting in general—alive.

The reason: Newspapers and newsmagazines provide some of the most attractive and valuable content on the Internet. Think, for example, of all the aggregator and blog sites that draw from and depend on the original reporting newspapers and newsmagazines do. Without that reporting, as Google well knows, they’d have little in the way of raw material.

It will be interesting to see how the Chico E-R’s experiment works out. Managers at the three News & Review papers are also talking about ways to make better use of our website and are considering some changes.

This is an epochal moment in American journalism. An industry that is vital to our democracy is on life support. It’s in everyone’s interest, including Google’s, that newspapers and good reporting survive.

Speaking of the Enterprise-Record: Last week the paper editorialized about how to fill the vacancy on the Chico City Council that will appear in January. That’s when the council’s lone conservative, Larry Wahl, who has two years left in his term, will resign to take a seat on the Butte County Board of Supervisors. The E-R recommends that the remaining council members simply agree to appoint whoever comes in fourth in the November election, when three seats are up for grabs.

The E-R argues, quite rightly, that it’s a good idea because it would put voters in the driver’s seat. What the editorial doesn’t say, though, is that it also would be a smart move by the remaining council members. They would be unwise to appoint another liberal to the seat, lest they be accused of power-mongering. So, rather than guarantee the seat to a conservative, why not leave it to the voters?