Alvin Toffler, seer and popularizer of what the future holds, has produced a new book ("Powershift") dealing with the "de-massification" of our society. This process is creating a country that, contrary to many social critics, is not a homogenous blob but a "mosaic" of great diversity in which "mass production," "mass taste" and "mass media" are obsolete concepts. Even the idea of "mass democracy," Mr. Toffler argues, is outliving its usefulness:

"Mass democracy implies the existence of 'masses.' But if technology permits the customization of products, if markets are being broken into niches, if the media multiply and serve continually narrowing audiences, if even family structure and culture are increasingly heterogenous, why should politics still presume the existence of homogenous masses? With de-massification, people's needs and, therefore, their political demands diversify ... {and will} force us to redefine the most fundamental democratic assumptions."

These changes are forcing journalists -- as well as politicians, manufacturers and retailers -- to reexamine and redefine conventional assumptions about their own place in this new world. In all of our metropolitan areas, we see arising around us these new "media mosaics." The "mosaic" in the Washington metropolis now includes seven locally produced daily newspapers, 52 weekly newspapers, various city magazines, 12 television stations, eight cable companies, 52 radio stations, hundreds of trade papers, journals, newsletters, political and consumer periodicals and countless other "media" I no doubt have overlooked.

Within these competitive "mosaics," the large newspapers have done well financially thus far. Their market penetration has declined during the past 40 years from 150 percent (1.5 papers per household) to between 50 and 60 percent today. But in their local communities, they are still the nearest thing to a mass medium. The Post, for example, compares its 1.5 million daily readers to the average prime-time audience of fewer than 300,000 adults for Washington's most popular television station. That is why newspapers remain attractive to local advertisers, especially department stores whose success has been intertwined with the success of metropolitan papers for more than a century.

But a newspaper is seen as more than a cash cow. Through much of our history, as the communications scholar Michael Schudson has written, it has performed "a social function of building solidarity and reaffirming common values within a community." He describes how Benjamin Franklin used his newspaper to extol the benefits of establishing in Philadelphia a hospital for the poor: "He did not seek to make print do the work of politics. It would not mobilize. It would not convince. It would simply and importantly, as he put it, 'prepare the minds of the people.' " Another scholar defines newspaper reading as "a form of active citizenship, a way to participate -- in solitude perhaps, but a very communitarian solitude -- in the ongoing conversation of {the} community."

As society fragments through the "de-massification" process, as "media mosaics" proliferate in ever more esoteric forms and as the newspaper's role in our lives steadily diminishes, legitimate concerns, both private and public, arise over the future of American journalism and its social utility.

Publishers and editors, worried by the erosion of readership and other perils of the marketplace, try to redefine the newspaper's role and enhance its relevance. Some experiment with new formats, modeled after USA Today, formats described as "reader friendly" by The Wall Street Journal: "Graphics and bright colors highlight stories on baby-boomer 'hot buttons,' such as the environment, divorce, personal finance, housing trends and the workplace."

Others contemplate another strategy. They would limit their reach, write off the less educated non-readers, concentrate on the upscale market segments and produce "quality" newspapers that supplement rather than imitate the superficiality of electronic news. The danger here is trivialization of the public dialogue.

That may well be the winning strategy in an economic sense. But how will the "conversation of the community" then be conducted? Which institutions will provide the glue to bind, even tenuously, these great and diverse metropolitan communities to which we will all still belong? Who will "prepare the minds of the people"?