Vital coverage jeopardized by thin ranks

Rem Rieder, editor and senior vice president of American Journalism Review, has reported and edited at six newspapers, including the Washington Post, Miami Herald and Philadelphia Inquirer.

It's hardly a secret that these are challenging, not to say scary, times for the newspaper business.

Circulation has been plummeting for years. Readers and advertisers are gravitating to the Web. Young people are about as likely to buy the paper as they are to swap an iPod for a transistor radio.

At paper after paper, "more with less" is the mantra. Staffs are shrinking via buyouts and layoffs. At the same time, papers are shifting reporters to their Web sites and to cover an expanding array of suburban communities.

Ironically, despite all the angst and uncertainty, the audience for the journalism these embattled newspapers produce is higher than ever, thanks to substantial traffic on their Web sites.

But that's cold comfort for the people who own the presses and cover the stories. That's because online advertising isn't growing quickly enough to make up for the print shortfall. Web income is still a small percentage of newspaper revenue.

Bottom line: Until a new economic model emerges, newspaper companies will continue to endure a bumpy ride.

It's obvious why that should matter to the people who own newspapers and earn their paychecks from them. But why should anyone else care? So what if newspapers go the way of the rotary phone, the record player, the DeSoto and the hula hoop?

Here's why: democracy. An informed electorate is critical to democracy. And providing that information properly is expensive. It requires a lot of reporting firepower. And large reporting staffs tend to be fielded by newspapers.

Sure, television has long been an important part of the equation. But TV news staffs are dwarfed by their newspaper counterparts.

Well, what about that burgeoning Web? Sadly, the same economic forces that are tormenting newspaper companies have precluded the development of online-only operations with vast news staffs.

Blogs, commentary-rich sites like Slate.com and Salon.com, citizen journalism -- all are important parts of the media mix. But none is a substitute for boots-on-the-ground reporting.

It's not about the delivery system. More and more people will get their news via the Web, cell phones and all manner of technical marvels on the horizon. Ink-on-paper newspapers will continue their slow fade.

Despite a lengthy career in print journalism, I do most of my reading these days on the Web, from breaking news to Philly sports updates to movie reviews at rottentomatoes.com to long, multipart series. And happily so.

The physical newspaper is no more essential than the vinyl record or the eight-track. But for the foreseeable future, newspaper companies are the only entities capable of mounting large armies of reporters.

And when those armies shrink, there's a price. Many newspapers have mothballed or sharply reduced their foreign operations, leaving coverage of critically important and complex stories like the war in Iraq to a mere handful of big papers, newspaper chains and wire services.

"More with less" comes with a steep price tag closer to home as well. With a smaller roster of journalists and a burgeoning assortment of tasks online and in the exurbs, something's got to give. Often that means important beats are jettisoned.

But the most costly casualty is likely to be the decline of investigative reporting and enterprise journalism, endeavors that cut to the heart of the vital watchdog role of the press. When journalism organizations hold conventions and dole out prizes, there's never a shortage of high-minded rhetoric about the news media fearlessly carrying out this sacred mission. These are the projects that uncover public corruption, unearth major problems at the local hospital, bring to light health-threatening environmental dangers, reveal corporate malfeasance à la Enron. The Washington Post's February series on the poor treatment of American war veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center is a sterling example.

But this work is time-consuming and expensive. It chews up a lot of reporting hours. There's no immediate payoff. In the world of "more with less," it's as vulnerable as it gets.

Too often, when media executives announce their "more with less" realignments, they sugarcoat the news, acting as though nothing significant will be lost. With commendable candor, the always-provocative Steve Smith, editor of the Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash., took another route when he told his staff recently about his paper's downsizing plan.

"None of us should hold any illusions here," Smith wrote in a memo. "A smaller staff means a lesser paper. There is no 'working harder' or 'working smarter' rhetoric that can hide the impact of staff reductions. Doing more with less is corporate-speak BS and you won't hear it from me. There is no way to make this pig look like anything other than a pig."

Until that elusive new economic model for the news media emerges, the American people will be the losers.