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PARKER: The story of how the news will survive

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker

Each time another report surfaces about the decline of newspapers, I feel like a death row inmate counting the warden's footsteps.

The latest echo of doom arrived a few days ago: U.S. newspaper circulation dropped 10 percent from April through September, compared to the same period last year. The largest decrease recorded thus far, the decline was attributed to the usual — advertising and readership lost to the Web. Industrywide, ad revenues, which constitute newspapers' main source of income, have dropped $20 billion from three years ago.

Even so, most newspapers remain profitable and circulation is astoundingly good, all things considered.

That's the delightful view of Alex Jones — fourth-generation member of a newspaper-owning family, Pulitzer Prize-winning media critic, and now author of "Losing the News." In his book, Jones, who also heads Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, manages to combine a dispassionate look at the news business with a page-turning story of traditional journalism's highs and lows.

For Americans concerned about the fate of news, he breathes oxygen into the collapsing organ of the Fourth Estate. For inmates waiting their turn at the guillotine, he is the governor's midnight call of reprieve.

There is hope amid so much change.

Despite all we know about the damaging convergence of a devastating recession, 24/7 news technology and shifting demographics, Jones' coffee cup is half full. The story isn't that newspapers are dying, he says. The story is that, even though people can get the same content online for free, they're ponying up to buy newspapers that are more expensive than ever.

"People in astonishing numbers are saying, ‘OK, I'll do it'," he said in a telephone interview.

The answer to why could be inertia, habit or the sports section, in some cases. In others, Jones suggests a citizenship decision. Americans are becoming increasingly aware that newspapers do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to reporting and bearing witness. When the newsroom goes dark, who or what will light the way?

A native of Greeneville, Tenn., Jones grew up in The Ink Age. His father is still publisher of The Greeneville Sun (circulation 15,000), where his two brothers and brother-in-law also work. His memories of those heady days when townspeople gathered in front of the newspaper offices to hear election results are suffused with nostalgia.

But Jones' perspective isn't primarily that of a wistful romantic. He's also a businessman and a citizen who believes in the profoundly important connection between quality news and a successful democracy.

His nightmare scenario is that current trends eventually could produce "a yawning disparity in accurate knowledge just as there is in wealth," he wrote in the book. "We could be heading for a well-informed class at the top and a broad populace awash in opinion, spin, and propaganda."

Traditional news organizations, especially newspapers, provide what Jones calls the "iron core" of information. Some new media, including online and nonprofits, produce some news and investigative journalism, but traditional media produce the bulk. The reason is because journalism is expensive. Thus far, only traditional media have the money and institutional wherewithal to withstand boycotts or to fight First Amendment battles. Unknown is how some of the newer journalism entities will respond when, inevitably, they are challenged.

Jones doesn't shy away from charges that the media are biased, but insists that "the media" are not monolithic. Reporters and editors are human and make mistakes, but they also are bound by standards. Accountability matters. Jones, meanwhile, stakes great faith in Americans' ability to distinguish between entertainment centered around public issues and traditional journalism.

He predicts that newspapers will develop new business models and survive. And though every news organization will have alternate methods of delivery, including the Web, each entity should remain true to its "authentic self."

Web culture — fast, irreverent, crude and subjective — is one kind of creature. Traditional media are different and should stick to what they historically have done best. Crucial to survival will be a renewed commitment to community, to corporate citizenship and social responsibility, and above all, to quality.

As Jones tells it, Arthur Gelb, former managing editor of The New York Times, used to shout: "Good stories!" when he read about some new experiment to boost newspaper circulation. "It is all about good stories!"

The story of newspapers is a good one, compellingly told by one of its leading characters. Reading it, you will want to buy a paper.

Kathleen Parker's e-mail address is kathleenparker@washpost.com.