The uncertain future of journalism

The words of legendary newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer remain powerful: “Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together.” But in the 21st century, what we mean by “press” is very different from anything Pulitzer and newspaper barons 100 years ago ever imagined.

As a means of conveying news in a timely way, paper and ink are becoming obsolete, eclipsed by the power, efficiency and technological elegance of the Internet. Consequently, major daily newspapers in great cities like Boston, San Francisco, Houston, Miami and Atlanta are experiencing double-digit percentage decreases in daily circulation.

Regional, smaller-market newspapers remain an indispensable source for local communities. They are a reliable source for understanding how world events impact our neighborhoods.

But the overall trend for the newspaper industry in the digital Information Age is clear from these examples: The 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News ceased publishing altogether this year; the 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the 100-year-old Christian Science Monitor shifted completely to the Web; and the Detroit Free Press cut home delivery to only three days.

Just looking at the erosion of the newspaper industry does not provide the full picture; it’s just one casualty of a completely shifting and churning information landscape. Many experts believe that what we are seeing happen to newspapers is just the beginning — that soon, perhaps in a matter of years, television and radio will experience what newspapers are experiencing now.

Traditional media face some tough competition from new media for advertising dollars. Google reportedly topped $21.7 billion in advertising revenue last year, to cite one example. Or consider the fact that Twitter’s website has more visitors each day than the New York Times’s website and that Facebook is adding 700,000 new members a day.

Newspapers are trying to adapt to the online world of journalism. And some of the thousands of journalists who have been laid off or bought out during the past year are becoming entrepreneurs, experimenting with journalism models supported through philanthropy as well as advertising and subscriptions.

Some have also joined the legions of bloggers now numbering more than 70 million. If Thomas Paine were around today, I suspect he would be blogging away, warning us that these are times that try our souls.

But so far, it seems like these efforts have not produced a business model that is easily replicated and can generate enough revenue to support the kind of journalism that is so important to our democracy.

At our Senate subcommittee hearing on the future of journalism last month, former newspaper reporter David Simon, the creator of HBO’s “The Wire,” testified that bloggers are not replacing the beat reporters who once stalked city halls, county courthouses and police stations. But perhaps the “pro-am” model advocated by Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington eventually will be up to the task.

There also is still some question of whether online journalism will sustain the values of professional journalism, the way the newspaper industry has for decades. And will the emerging news media be more fragmented by special interests and political partisanship?

We live in a digital age. And there is no going back to the old ways. I doubt many of us even want to. It is invigorating to have so much information available to us. And we like knowing the latest news instantly and being able to get the news from just about anywhere. But if we take seriously this notion that the press is the fourth estate, or the fourth branch of government, then we should take a close look at the future of journalism in the digital Information Age and what it means to our local communities and our democracy. As part of this examination, I will continue to look for ways to ensure that a professional class of investigative journalism lives on and acts as the eyes and ears of the people.

Kerry chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the