Are newspapers facing extinction?

A woman is reading the weekend newspaper in a coffee shop. Is this a fading pleasure?

Reading the newspaper was one of my favourite activities before the internet become a primary source of information. I miss the tactile relationship between the sheets of paper, the layout of articles and photographs and the wonderful portability of a newspaper.

Sadly, a number of newspapers will be closing in the next few months, due to declining advertising revenues and audiences accessing free information on-line. The Chicago Tribune is under bankruptcy protection, while the San Francisco Chronicle may close in April if it doesn't find a financial backer. The Baltimore Examiner and the Cincinnati Post have already shut their doors. The latest casualty is Denver's Rocky Mountain News, which ceased operations yesterday, and posted this page on its web site.

While it's not hard to argue the environmental benefits of printing less paper, what I'm most concerned about is the essential work the ink on the sheet represents. Newspapers play a vital role in democracies; no need to spell out the details. Ironically, the decline of the local papers is not related to the level of research and reporting they carry out, but rather to changing business models. So much content is available for free these days that many people have simply stopped buying the newspaper. And advertisers have spread their dollars over many other forms of media not available twenty or thirty years ago. Now, with the economic downturn, there just isn't enough money to go around and news organizations cannot cover their costs.

Lots of people don't realize that many of the stories that circulate on the internet, on the radio and on television originate in newspaper newsrooms. As the lights go out one by one in these newsrooms, that quality information we take for granted will gradually disappear and I fear we will be left with poorly assembled facts, mere headlines, innuendo, unsubstantiated reports, and "doctored" or "spun" information. I worry about the future of our communites if reliable information becomes hard to find.

It's ironic that with the popularity of the internet, some newspapers have actually multiplied their readership in recent years, reaching global audiences in some cases, and yet they have not found a way to finance their work. The business infrastructure has not kept pace.

In an essay in Time magazine, Walter Isaacson makes a case for an easy on-line subscription model to save journalism. He argues for a simple system like an i-Tunes fee to pay for the journalistic work that consumers desire.

Would this fly? Will readers be willing to pay for quality information? Everything is changing these days and we just can't predict what will work and what won't.

In some ways, the digital age is like the industrial revolution at the beginning of the last century. Now our society is being transformed by computers, electronic media and their applications. We can't tell what its shape will be until this phase has run its course.

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