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Media Notes: Can Newspapers Be Saved?

A survey by the University of Southern California's Annenberg center found that Net users are spending 53 minutes per week reading online newspapers, up from 41 minutes in 2007. The problem, as you've undoubtedly heard, is that the print advertising that has supported sizable newsrooms is plunging, while online ads bring in just a fraction of the revenue. Combine that with an Internet culture built on free content, and newspapers suddenly find themselves on a starvation diet.

Numerous schemes are being floated, from turning newspapers into nonprofits to seeking foundation grants. Steven Brill, the founder of Court TV and the defunct magazine Brill's Content, has joined with two other former media executives to form Journalism Online. He is talking to publishers about a site that would allow consumers to easily buy subscriptions, day passes or single articles from numerous media organizations, each of which would decide how much to charge and how much to put behind a pay wall. Rupert Murdoch, who is considering development of an e-reader that might be better suited to newspapers than Amazon's Kindle, also plans to begin charging "micro-payments" for individual articles on the Wall Street Journal's subscription-only Web site, the Financial Times reports.

But what about the old rolled-up, flip-through-the-pages, take-it-on-the-subway product? In a world where the most obscure factoid can be searched in seconds, is most of America now immune to those charms? With both Chicago newspapers in bankruptcy, that may be the case.

Clay Shirky of New York University says on his blog that "people committed to saving newspapers [are] demanding to know, 'If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?' To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the Internet just broke."

Maybe he's right. To recite the wonders of the daily paper -- the serendipitous mixture of serious and playful, plugged-in local columnists, a natural forum for in-depth articles -- is to risk sounding like a fuddy-duddy gentleman preaching the virtues of ascots and walking sticks.

But then there is the reporting. In 2003, the Globe won a Pulitzer Prize for exposing sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, a courageous journalistic feat that led to the resignation of Boston's archbishop and sparked inquiries around the world. Can the slimmed-down Globe of the future do such intensive reporting? Could any other media outlet in Boston even attempt such a project?

Newspaper folks may have an inflated view of their self-importance, but what they do has an impact beyond their readers and advertisers. Local TV isn't likely to expose a crooked mayor, as the Detroit Free Press did. Bloggers aren't going to reveal secret CIA prisons.

"Society doesn't need newspapers. What we need is journalism," Shirky argues. That is way too glib. The online cacophony that would follow the demise of newspapers would be fast, furious and fun, insightful and opinionated. But let's face it: Who would pay for a Baghdad bureau, or even a bureau in Albany or Annapolis?

I still have the buffet mentality, the idea that news, sports, entertainment and so on can make for a tasty package. Buffet folks like to get a fill, a briefing, a contextual sense of what's important. But so many others in the iTunes age would rather cherry-pick, clicking on one story and rushing off, window shoppers who rarely come inside.

Newspapers are probably dying as a mass medium, except perhaps for elite or specialized audiences. Cutting down forests, printing the product and trucking it across the region no longer make economic sense. What is lost is the sense of community when everyone read the daily rag.

Nothing lasts forever. I grew up in the era of tinny AM radios and 45 rpm records. I've worked for an afternoon paper that went under, the scrappy Washington Star. Maybe serious journalism will reinvent itself in new and unexpected forms. But if everything goes electronic, I'll always miss the feel of newsprint.

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