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FROM THIS EPISODE

Shadows of Their Former Selves

For KCRW, I'm Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun with Minding the Media.

Those of us who toil in print journalism are feeling very much like those in radio must have felt at the dawn of the age of television, only more so. With the fingertip reach of the Internet, 24-hour cable news and now, podcasting and its various cousins, the newspaper that always landed with a crack on your doorstep is looking a lot like an anachronism, left in the dust of progress.

Just last week, there were signs everywhere of the slow demise, even at the New York Times Company, which announced its second round of job cuts this year. This time, it will dispose of 500 employees, including 45 in the newsroom of its flagship New York Times and dozens more at its sister papers, the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune. Staff cuts were announced also at the Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury News. And similar upheavals have beset the San Francisco Chronicle and the Los Angeles Times, which evidently seems like such a sitting duck to the Hollywood mogul David Geffen that he has expressed an interest in buying it. Its owner, the Tribune Company, says it's not for sale -- at least not yet.

Invariably, the cutbacks at these papers have been blamed on the high cost of staffing, printing and distributing newspapers in the face of falling advertising revenues and circulation.

"There's never a good time for this kind of news," Rem Rieder, editor of American Journalism Review, wrote the other day, "but the timing couldn't have been worse, coming just after the splendid Katrina coverage reminded us how important newspapers can be."

It's not exactly clear how these newspapers plan to continue covering the news with the ghosts of their reporters and editors. Perhaps they will fill their pages with pictures and wire service stories, with the result that newspapers, if we're not careful, will all end up sounding precisely the same, shadows of their great traditions.

"Big newspapers full of deep reporting and serious ambitions seem like dinosaurs at the beginning of a very cold ice age," the media critic David Carr wrote in yesterday's New York Times. Carr reminded his readers of the intrinsic value of newspapers, which provide depth and perspective largely unavailable from the hurried, sometimes overly dramatic dispatches of wind-swept television correspondents.

"Newspapers are a civic good, especially right now," Carr wrote, "but they cannot function as a non-profit."

On MarketWatch.com, the media columnist Jon Friedman wrote last week that if publishers "use their financial woes as an excuse to cut back on the coverage of disenfranchised people in America, it's going to be a very bad time to be poor."

An undeniable factor in the revolution taking place is that the average consumer of news has become accustomed to getting it free. But in an effort to plug the spillage of revenue, the New York Times website last week put its op-ed columnists -- the paper's biggest draw -- behind a pay wall, so that now you either go out and buy the paper, subscribe to it, or pay almost $50 a year to read Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd and the others online.

The New York Observer did the same.

But what does it say about newspapers when their biggest stars are not news reporters but opinion writers? Do readers still value straight, unadulterated news? Can it be true that, once the churning winds of hurricanes have subsided, readers will go back to ignoring traditional newspapers, in favor of the quick rush of television and the handy access of the worldwide web?

Let's hope not.

This is Nick Madigan of the Baltimore Sun, Minding the Media on KCRW.

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