Commentary: Communities will feel loss of newspapers

A long time ago, I helped save a fish shop. It was on a grimy corner of Syracuse, N.Y. City zoning policies had led to rampant vagrancy in the neighborhood.

The shop was run down, and so was its proprietor. But he livened up when I stopped by, identified myself as a reporter for the local newspaper, and asked how he was doing.

"I'll show you how I'm doing," he said, and stormed out to his back parking lot, which was littered with liquor bottles.

"This is how I'm doing," the fish vendor said, and started flinging bottles around.

Smash. Smash. Smash. It made a great story for me and dramatic shots for our photographer.

About a month later, I drove by the fish shop and couldn't believe it was the same place. Its faded gray exterior was now bright red, and the boarded-up windows were replaced with Plexiglas.

"When you put me in the paper, it gave me hope," the fish vendor said. Plus, the story had prompted police to step up enforcement.

That was, for me, the best of days, when I knew my work could make a difference.

I think of the fish vendor every time another nail gets pounded into the coffin of journalism as I have known it and practiced it for 30 years.

Newspapers are jettisoning staff and taking extreme measures to survive.

Detroit's two dailies rocked the profession this week by announcing they'll deliver to homes only three days a week. People who wish to read the news of their city the other days can buy the paper at a newsstand or go online. It's possible that at least one major city will be without a print newspaper at the end of 2009.

The problem, boiled down, is that readers and advertisers are moving from newsprint to the Internet, but Internet advertisements pay only a fraction of print ads.

We in this business can’t seek a bailout. It's difficult to be a watchdog of government if you're beholden to it.

We don't ask for the public's sympathy for our uncertain future, or even our laid-off, dearly missed colleagues. Workers in all kinds of fields are unemployed.

But we appreciate the show of support from people who tell us that, love it or hate it, they can't imagine losing their daily newspaper.

Savvy Internet users understand that, when they call up their favorite site, be it the Huffington Post, Townhall or Tony's Kansas City, much of the information that's linked to or commented upon originated from a newspaper or wire service.

But the public has come to expect its journalism for free. Even if you're cutting out print and delivery expenses, it costs money for reporters to keep up with the antics of Mayor Mark Funkhouser or to report on how lawmakers in Jefferson City and Topeka are spending tax dollars.

The answer may be to charge consumers to download content on the Internet. It may be the creation of niche publications that command enough ads to subsidize news-gathering. It may be a switch to non-profit, foundation-supported ownership.

It may be all of the above, or none of the above.

Journalism will be practiced in some form. But the world is changing, and what I see at the end of a terrible year is a fraying community connection.

Internet sites can give you the big stories. Bloggers can give you opinions and snappy lines. Watchdog sites can give you good investigative reports.

But if newspapers die, what forum will exist for stories like the fish vendor's? Small in the scheme of things but large to the persons involved.