THE BLOG
02/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Who Will Watch Government When All The Journalists Are Laid Off?

The loss of advertising revenue for daily newspapers has resulted in the lay-off of experienced journalists as a way to control costs.

As news papers continue to shrink and more focus is paid to the Web version, the problems continue to rise. The Web becomes both an additional business model and at the same time the revenue problem by leeching sources from print. Advertising revenue for the Web is about 20 percent of the same print ad.

But let's focus on the most critical fall-out here, and that is the trained and skilled journalist removed from the city room. We'll get to the Web further down.

The implications of fewer journalists covering the government are obvious. "When reporters leave the state Capitol, the mice play," said Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard. "It takes no imagination," Jones said, when "the governor of Illinois was arrested (on corruption charges) ... to understand that state government needs watching very carefully."

The brain-drain is staggering. The Newspaper Guild, CWA, reported that at least 34,000 of the more than 44,000 news industry employees, who lost their jobs between 2001 and June 2006 had been employed at newspapers. Thousands more news staff are expected to lose their jobs in the next six months.

"They [new reporters] are a lot less informed. They don't know what's going on," said Melinda McCrady, the communications director, the House Democratic caucus.

Business is Business

It's not difficult to understand business needs and that costs must be cut. But reducing experienced editorial staff is not the way to go about it. That's like trying to save on gas by taking the engine out of your car. Sure, you'll save money by not buying fuel, but you won't go anywhere either. Newspapers save money by not paying for skilled reporters. When quality suffers, the entire industry is tarnished.

In terms of news and content, the Web experience has changed how reporters craft their stories, and studies show that a story is presented differently on the Web than in the paper.

Web content must be brief. Most Web users are looking for something specific. They are not browsing in the same way they might at the kitchen table. The Web reader is usually on a mission for specific information.

Chris Hedges, a senior fellow at the Nation Institute and former New York Times foreign correspondent, believes the Internet is not the vehicle of choice for serious news readers. "The average reader of the paper copy of the New York Times spends forty-five minutes reading the paper," he said. "The average viewer of the New York Times website spends about seven minutes. The Internet is not designed for a literate society. We are moving into a post-literate society, a society where information, and of course a very limited quality, is portrayed primarily through images. The Internet can make that fusion between print and images. But the medium itself will determine the content. And to somehow look at the Internet as simply another delivery system is a mistake."

Some are blaming the Web for loss of revenue because readers can find the same information online for free. So, why pay for it? True to a point.

If the newspaper industry must divide its business model with the Web, so be it. New business models force companies into being innovative and creative. The term "print-Web hybrid," was coined by columnist Robert Kuttner, in the Neiman Report, the newsletter for the Neiman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Using Kuttner's model of "Print-Web hybrid" could possibly stand in for a softer landing solution for newspapers than what we are currently experiencing.

Here is how I see it: The daily will continue to publish a scaled down version of the printed paper with regional advertising helping to defray costs. Full news coverage and everything that did not go into the print version is offered on the Web version. In order to read the Web version, the subscriber must use a log-in provided by the subscription price.

This may not be the perfect solution. However, in order to have an experienced and adequately staffed press, we must find a way to generate ad revenue to retain experienced journalistic talent.

Geri Spieler is the author of Taking Aim At The President: The Remarkable Story of the Woman Who Shot At Gerald Ford. The story of Sara Jane Moore, a middle-aged mother and doctor's wife who shot at Ford's head and missed by six inches.