The Boston Globe's near-death experience earlier this month provided another glimpse of the clear and present danger to American democracy posed by the demise of the nation's newspapers. Shuttering The Globe, which has been hemorrhaging money for years, would have made Boston a one-newspaper town-a scenario hardly conducive to the free flow of information and ideas that democracy requires.
Yet Boston's two-newspaper status is a luxury few towns can afford today. According to researchers, 502 U.S. cities had more than one newspaper in 1923. By midcentury that number had been cut in half, and by 2003 fewer than than two dozen cities had any meaningful competition in their print markets. "Every time a newspaper dies,” writes the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Richard Kluger, "the country moves a little closer to authoritarianism.” While Mr. Kluger may be overstating the case, it is clear that the substantial downsizing or closure of respected newspapers like The Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Rocky Mountain News has further impoverished our national discourse.
A newspaper is a business but it is also a public trust, an indispensable check on abuses of power. Watergate, the Iran-Contra affair, the Pentagon Papers-we only learned about these scandals because newspapers told us about them. And they were able to tell us because they had the resources to conduct the diligent investigative reporting the stories required. The broadcast media, then as now, simply followed the lead of the papers. No one denies that newspapers can also abuse their power, but our outrage at such abuses simply affirms the lofty position newspapers occupy in society.
Concerned citizens are looking for answers. Senator John F. Kerry convened Congressional hearings in April to assess the extent of the crisis. "As a means of conveying news in a timely way, paper and ink have become obsolete, eclipsed by the power, efficiency and technological elegance of the Internet,” Mr. Kerry said. That much is certainly true, but there is a more powerful phenomenon at work: Technology has created what Mr. Kerry rightly calls "a completely shifting and churning information landscape.”
The survival of newspapers is not simply a question of transferring their print content to an electronic platform, but of coming to terms with a revolution in how information is consumed. The Web has placed an astonishing amount of human knowledge on our desktops, mainly to our benefit. Yet by providing an information marketplace where our choices are maximized, the Web has transformed demand. In this new world of maximum choice, we decide for ourselves, almost in isolation, what is newsworthy, as if journalism were simply another form of entertainment. This entirely self-directed news consumption is unhealthy, because we are more likely to select stories and opinions to which we are already inclined. In other words, without a common source of information, such as traditional newspapers, the civic conversation is reduced to a series of interactions within smaller and smaller groups of people who already agree with each other. Newspapers will need both to challenge and to accommodate this phenomenon if they are going to survive in any medium.
Yet even if newspapers are successful in that task, their survival is still at risk without a radical change in their business model. The economics of the Internet are incompatible with the traditional economics of newspapers. Consumers not only want news on demand and in digital format we also do not want to pay for it. In a market where price and value are synonymous, that is a distressing indicator. At a minimum, it means that tomorrow'os newspapers, online or not, will be a greater mixture of for-profit and nonprofit ventures. Nonprofit status is perhaps more appropriate for an organization that is a vital public trust. Legislation that would permit newspapers to reorganize as nonprofits should include changes to the I.R.S. code in order to permit newspapers the full freedom to editorialize, one way in which newspapers make an important contribution to the public debate. Other proposals worthy of support include creating endowments for investigative journalism and international reporting, both of which are usually early casualties of cutbacks.
Given a choice between a government without newspapers and newspapers without a government, Thomas Jefferson said he would prefer the latter. The value he assigned to a free press is perhaps even greater in our own time, when the scope and scale of government have far surpassed Jefferson's wildest imaginings. Citizens and consumers must not abandon the mission of newspapers even if we eventually abandon the presses.