Reports of its own death are greatly exaggerated

Today my friend and former Salon colleague Gary Kamiya joins the debate about the imperiled newspaper industry. With passion he points out that the gravest danger at hand isn’t the potential death of newsprint but of news reporting itself.

Quality reporting — made of tireless, independent investigation and clear-eyed, vivid storytelling — is essential to cultural progress and a healthy democracy. (I say this as much as a citizen as someone who works in the trade.) Indeed it seems deeply troubling when a once mighty institution like the Los Angeles Times kills its own section devoted to covering California. That’s just one of many convulsions in the industry of late. The future of the fourth estate is, in one unsettling sense, very much unwritten.

But there is also a tendency in the whole ongoing debate to overplay concerns about impending calamity. “If newspapers die, so does reporting,” Gary writes. Of that I’m not so sure — the present crisis is also an immense opportunity of necessity. If the technological change recasting the newspaper industry is synonymous with its traditional medium (and business model) fast losing viability, then it’s prime time for further innovation in how news can be gathered, produced and delivered digitally.

It’s not at all clear yet how to succeed in terms of a business model. (I have my doubts that it will be “tip jars” or “micropayments,” or even philanthropy.) But the number of talented people tackling the challenge is growing, and the ferment is giving rise to some very interesting experimentation. One example is the open-source approach to generating reporting at Spot.us. Another is the convergent foreign coverage at GlobalPost.com.

Given the bad economy in general, now may seem an unlikely moment for optimism. But the rising connectivity and capability of the Web holds much further promise for quality journalism. As the newspaper industry’s old analog houses burn down, I’m most interested in thinking about what more could go inside the digital ones that inevitably will replace them.

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