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Some Senatorial Tears for the Ink-Stained Wretches

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, May 7, 2009

They came as if to their own funeral.

Reporters from Hearst, USA Today, McClatchy, the Dallas Morning News, The Washington Post, the Washington Times and the Boston Globe -- their employers in varying stages of decline or death -- took their places at the press table for a Senate subcommittee hearing yesterday titled "The Future of Journalism."

"I hope I get laid off," one of the reporters could be heard telling a Senate staffer, "so I can get the severance."

A newspaper industry official introduced James Moroney, publisher of the Dallas Morning News, to Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.). "He's a real, live newspaper publisher!" the official marveled.

The eulogies were read.

"An older order is dying," said Steve Coll, former managing editor of The Post.

"High-end journalism is dying in America," testified David Simon, creator of HBO's "The Wire," who wore an open-collar black sport shirt for the somber occasion.

The names of the fallen were read aloud.

"The 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News ceased publishing altogether this year," the panel's chairman, John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), said before mentioning the deaths or near-deaths of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the Christian Science Monitor, the Detroit Free Press and his home-state Boston Globe.

"The Albuquerque Tribune has folded in the last couple of years," said Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.).

"If I could just add one more to that list -- that's the Baltimore Sun, my hometown paper, in bankruptcy," offered Cardin.

Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) must have felt left out. "Whether you read The Washington Post or my hometown newspaper, the Murdo Coyote, all of those newspapers make a contribution to their communities," he said.

It was getting very morose. Fortunately, Kerry livened up the proceedings by inviting two accused newspaper industry killers -- Arianna Huffington of the Huffington Post and Marissa Mayer of Google -- to share their views.

"The future of quality journalism is not dependent on the future of newspapers," announced Huffington, whose Web site relies on free newspaper reporting. She scolded newspapers for having the nerve to want to charge money for their products.

Mayer, who oversees Google News, explained how "Google is doing its part" to preserve journalism -- by keeping the lion's share of ad revenue before directing readers to newspaper sites. "Google News and Google search provide a valuable service to online newspapers specifically by sending interested readers to their sites," she said.

Oh? Let's plug in "Senate Commerce Committee 'Future of Journalism' hearing" into Google News and see what comes up. After a link to a wire story, the second headline is "Google's Mayer to Dispense Advice to Newspapers At Senate Hearing."

In the real world, Google and the Huffington Post are triumphing over traditional news-gathering organizations. But before the senators, Huffington and Mayer were decidedly in the minority. Newspapers, said Cardin, are "essential to a free and democratic society" and provide "much of our news that we see echoed in blogs and on the Internet."

"The words of Joseph Pulitzer are still true -- our republic and its press will rise or fall together," Kerry concurred.

But it was Simon, once a Baltimore Sun reporter, who struck the strongest blow for newspapers. Though scolding publishers for their "martyrology" and mismanagement, he spoke of how "aggregating Web sites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth" and added: "The parasite is slowly killing the host."

Kerry seemed to side with the newspaper dinosaurs as he told Google's Mayer that the way Google sends people to newspaper sites, "it certainly isn't covering the cost of doing business."

"It's still very early," Mayer answered.

"It's not early for the Denver Post or Seattle Intelligencer -- a bunch of folks facing bankruptcy today," Kerry shot back.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) had some complaints for Huffington. "For your audience, there's not going to be a lot of stories about the cop that has been running the dice game on the side," she said. "The way you get those stories is by investing in people."

"The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board hearing," added the casually clad Simon, "is the day that I will be confident that we have actually reached some sort of balance."

That day is still a long way off. And it wasn't clear whether the solutions proposed -- nonprofit status and an antitrust exemption -- would save newspapers even if Congress decided to act.

But newspapers, in their death throes, can at least have this consolation: the affection of senators, who, unlike their bawdy, anti-newspaper counterparts in the House, still have highbrow tastes, God bless 'em.

Kerry had difficulty understanding why "money goes to Google rather than the newspaper" and why it would be so "onerous" for the likes of Google and the Huffington Post to sit down with newspapers and figure out a more equitable arrangement. "I see cacophony without standards," Kerry said. "I see more and more people operating in public life with snippets, and I think that's dangerous."

Well said. Unfortunately, many of the newspaper reporters had already left the room to file their own obituaries before deadline.

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