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Newspapers lose souls when corporate cuts come to roost

The question is: Do Americans really want to live in a world without newspapers?

If you're reading this, chances are good you don't. Yet almost daily we read reports of more buyouts and budget cuts at America's papers owing to fewer readers.

Newsrooms, now cubicled and corporatized, have become the morgues they so closely resemble, filled with ghosts of the departed and those who await the next ax to fall. Who's next? A copy editor here, a columnist there, or - most endangered of all - a cartoonist?

Nearly all corporately owned papers have suffered in recent years as profit margins have dropped along with circulation and advertising. Talk is that Knight Ridder, one of the largest newspaper chains, may be sold in the near future. The Tribune Co., which owns both my home paper, The Orlando Sentinel, and my syndicate, Tribune Media Services, is making tough calls across the board.

The Tribune Co. has been hit by both lower-than-usual profits and, most injurious, a circulation scandal that cost the company a bundle. At two of the company's newspapers, Newsday and Hoy, Tribune Co.'s Spanish-language paper, circulation figures upon which advertising rates are primarily based were exaggerated.

Tribune has set aside $90 million to settle with aggrieved advertisers. Combine that kind of wound with consumer trends away from newspapers toward other media, and the question of survival becomes urgent.

The solution to stanch bleeding has been predictable and, if you're of a certain business mind, logical. When revenues go down, the calculator crowd reasons, you cut costs. But to those in the trenches, cutting staff is exactly the wrong solution, more like a self-inflicted wound trending toward suicide than a remedy.

By cutting newsroom staffs, the corporate suits are reducing the likelihood that papers can do what makes them necessary. And they are necessary, a point too many seem to be missing.

As much as we've heard about the slow death of newspapers -

"mainstream media," as disaffected bloggers like to call us -we've heard little about why this is no cause for celebration. A so-called "victory" for the blogosphere vis-a-vis declining newspaper readership is very much a defeat for the freedoms we take for granted.

Newspapers serve their communities in ways that can't be replicated by bloggers -noble-spirited, smart and entertaining as many often are -or by anyone else. They not only help define a given community, but also serve as both government watchdog and information conduit. They have the resources to investigate, to report, to inform as no other entity can, does or will.

Of course, newspapers also have a duty to be reliable, accurate, interesting and entertaining -no small feat and nearly impossible as resources dwindle. Thus, instead of cutting where it counts to satisfy shareholders, corporate honchos should be infusing newsrooms with more money to hire more staff -especially those who give newspapers their soul, their personality, their "thing."

One of the most controversial cuts in recent weeks was the firing of columnist Robert Scheer and editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez at the L.A. Times, a Tribune paper. Scheer's departure has been explained as the result of the new editorial page editor's shuffling voices.

But there's no satisfactory explanation for why Ramirez won't be replaced. The decision to eliminate the in-house cartoonist symbolizes a lack of understanding among those who hold the purse strings about what's needed to save newspapers. Cartoon and column space can be filled with syndicated material, but the human quality is diminished when a paper's own in-house voices are lost to the cost-cutting void.

Not long ago, when you said Chicago, you thought "Royko," for example. In the Carolinas as I was coming along, no cartoonist was better known than The Charlotte Observer's Doug Marlette for his skewering of Tammy Faye and Jim Bakker. He won a Pulitzer for his troubles.

What made people like Royko and Marlette distinctive, besides their talent, was that they belonged to their communities, not just their newspapers. They wrote and cartooned about local issues that affected readers' daily lives, not just national topics of general interest. Readers felt connected to them and, therefore, to their newspapers.

They picked up the paper each day just to see what those guys were up to. They might even bump into them at the local pub.

Twenty years ago there were 200 staff political cartoonists compared with fewer than 90 today. As corporate bean counters look for new cuts, they might consider that there's a connection between the hemorrhaging their shareholders feel and the bloodied newsrooms they're leaving behind.

Kathleen Parker, an Orlando Sentinel columnist, welcomes comments via e-mail at kparker@kparker.com. Her column appears on Friday.