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Editorial: Finding the path through a revolution

It was with sadness that we learned that the Oregonian is joining the ranks of metro papers that have cut delivery days and staff. When an institution like the Oregonian is diminished, it’s a loss to us all in terms of cultivating an informed and engaged citizenry.

Fortunately newspapers like The Chronicle have a few advantages over larger papers.

While the Oregonian sees competition from TV news, local newspapers, the Associated Press and alternatives like Willamette Week, we are helped by being the only place where our readers can get a comprehensive mix of in-depth local government reporting, local sports, obituaries, letters to the editor, arrest reports, event notices, youth news, business news, faith news and coupons for area businesses.

We also aren’t owned by Advanced Publications, which has been responsible for many of the highest-profile cutbacks in the news business lately. So don’t worry, we’re not going anywhere.

Ironically, despite announcements such as the Oregonian’s, the demand for news remains high. But journalists, full of idealism and wary of the ethical pitfalls being too profit-minded can bring, were too slow to respond to the threat of the Internet and are now paying the price.

The solution is out there somewhere. The key issue — one that affects not only reporters but the wellbeing of our entire democracy — is figuring out a way to effectively monetize the news in the digital age without sacrificing journalists’ mandate to act as independent watchdogs.

The news business represents a precarious balance between social responsibility and commerce. Readers often castigate publications for trying to make money, but the cold, hard truth is that newspapers are a business: no revenue means no way to pay the professional staff.

On the other hand, the product newspapers are selling is one that plays a special role in society. When large companies treat their newspapers as nothing more than an underperforming business asset, they do a disservice to the public.

Newspapers are important. Even those who don’t subscribe to one know that the NSA has their phone records because someone who does read the news told them.

Without independent news publications, voters would be forced to rely on candidates’ campaign materials. Government officials wouldn’t have to worry that any misconduct might land them on the front page.

Significant decisions by local entities — often made while a Chronicle reporter is the only person in the audience — would go unreported. How many times has the Chronicle’s reporting on a potential decision sparked a push-back from citizens that ultimately caused the idea to be revised or abandoned?

So how do we protect those important functions of journalism as the news moves more and more onto the Internet, where readers believe they are entitled to a free product, advertisers are reluctant to purchase space and theft of reporters’ work by aggregators and bloggers is rampant?

Government subsidies are out, because fear of angering the wrong politician would keep journalists from being bold in their investigations. Nonprofit journalism can work in some cases (ProPublica comes to mind) but generally those publications tend to lose their objectivity as they cater more and more to the special interests that keep the cash donations coming.

Currently, most publications are funding themselves through sales, but good business sense often translates into poor journalism. Tracking page views has resulted in a news market saturated with entertaining but more or less useless items like “51 animal pictures you need to see before you die” and “Why I love Kim and Kanye’s unusual baby name.”

Not only do those types of stories generate more web traffic (and by extension, more advertising revenue) but an overworked staff can churn out 10 such pieces in the time it takes to craft one story about mismanagement of taxpayer dollars.

And self-described “citizen journalists” would be better identified under the “activist” moniker. Instead of a well-rounded view of the news that aims for fairness and a neutral perspective, their goals are more often than not to forward a particular ideology. They have their place in the information continuum, but don’t expect to find diverse perspectives on the issues of the day.

We’re in the midst of an information revolution at this juncture. Newspapers — and a long list of other businesses — haven’t yet figured out their place in it.

But people who value liberty under a representative government may be better served by valuing Kanye less and professional journalists more.

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