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Can The Globe survive online only? Outlook is dicey

The ink-on-paper broadsheet newspaper titled The Boston Globe, owned by the New York Times Co. since 1993, has been delivering information, analysis, and opinion to its readers for 137 years of wars and shaky peacetimes, of the Depression, recessions, and economic good times, introducing them to, among other things, the telephone, the electric light, the automobile, the plane, rockets and spaceships, radio, television, the computer, and, lately, the cyberspace entities that have set up shop as websites on the Internet.

Today, the migration of advertising – classified columns to sites like Craigslist and display ads to company and aggregator sites – has left newspapers like the Globe sapped of their lifeblood (circulation revenue alone cannot support a newspaper), and, we are told, death seems imminent for many of them. The death, that is, of printing businesses that require not only reporters and editors and executives and salespeople but also hundreds of production employees, large buildings, large presses, mailroom sorting systems, and delivery drivers and their trucks.

Another Globe property, boston.com, which includes a complete electronic version of the Globe as one of its offerings, is seeing its readership continue to grow. And the price is right for newspaper readers: log onto the site and read the daily and Sunday editions for free. Given this, the key question for the New York Times Company and the Globe, seems clear: Should financial circumstances lead to the shedding of the production units associated with the printing side of the business, can a large-circulation metropolitan newspaper attract enough advertising to make it a profitable electronic-only site offering original-source news?

There has been no jury finding on the case (though lots of blather posing as omniscience from the know-it-alls whose opinions are tracked on the clearinghouse of journalistic chatter operated by Jim Romenesko), but the fact that to date advertising revenue for the online paper has come nowhere close to matching its impact on the print side of the equation suggests the answer will be “no,” a worst-case scenario the Globe hopes will never come to pass: not enough money to keep an enterprise worthy of the name in business in any medium.

Make no mistake: Good journalism is costly. Last week, in an address to students at the University of Oregon, Globe editor-in-chief Martin Baron reflected on the matter: “The first story in the Globe’s Pulitzer-winning investigation of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and a 40-year cover-up, was published in January 2002, but it required eight months of reporting and major litigation before a single word appeared in print. Another year of reporting by a team of eight staffers resulted in the publication of some 1,000 stories. The overall cost of this effort was probably more than $1 million in staff salaries, and tens of thousands of dollars in legal costs. But the journalism’s impact has been long-lasting and profound – in Boston, around the country, and around the world.”

But that was then. Today, the imperative on Morrissey Boulevard is to cut, then cut some more. For all that, Baron and his team continue to produce, on newsprint and online, local journalism of quality and depth, reporting on the good things and bad things that people do in edition after edition while outside the building’s walls, the talk is all about the impending death of the paper.

What we are left to conjure with now is the fate of the civic institution the Globe has come to be in the century and a third since its founding during the first Grant Administration. The newspaper flourished in the last decades of the 19th century mainly because it displayed a populist bent and paid attention to the new immigrants who came in droves to the city and environs. Between 1896 and 1967, the Globe kept its nose out of the endorsement business, relying instead on the exhaustive political coverage in its news columns that became its hallmark. Over the last five decades, the paper’s editorial pages have taken what its proprietors called a progressive stance on most issues of the days; its many critics, both the high-minded and the pure haters, prefer the word “liberal,” as if the term denoted sinfulness.

Whatever its readers’ views of its inclinations, the paper presses on. “Keep in mind the breadth of what we do,” said Baron to his Oregonian audience last week. “We cover crime and the police, state and federal prosecutors, state and federal courts, the environment, higher education, K-12 education, state government, city government, social services, transportation, immigration, development, and religion. We cover professional, college, and high school sports. We cover business, from high finance to small enterprises, and we cover the arts of every sort. In Boston, we cover a sprawling medical and scientific community of international acclaim. We cover individual towns – there are more than 200 of them in our core circulation area. We offer, and solicit, well-considered and well-crafted opinion. We publish stories of perspective and depth – analyses, explanatory journalism, forceful narratives of human drama.

“Like all communities, ours has its powerful interests – public officials, major businesses, major institutions, and power brokers of every type. We hold them accountable with investigations, some that require months and a small fortune to execute. And we do all of these things every weekday, every Saturday and Sunday and – with the Web – from early morning to very late at night.”

Is all that replaceable in communities across the country were the major regional newspapers to go out of business in print and on line? To date, the record is clear that online aggregators of news and information and the pundits who follow their trail have one main source for most of what they distribute or comment on as credible information – professional newspaper reporters working their beats across the world. Absent these sources, say the likes of the commentator Michael Kinsley, a new paradigm of news delivery will surely take form, though he seems to have nary a clue as to what shape it will take or how readers will get consistently reliable news and information rather than journalism by assertion if the vast network of reporters now in place is shut down by bankrupt old media companies.

The following was posted recently on the Economist’s online site: “Readers pick a news source that meets their needs. I read the Economist every day because it provides an educated view of America and the world that I can’t get in the United States. I don’t get any of my news from print publications (other than the occasional copy of The Economist, which I buy in airports only). I want good reporting and analysis on substantive issues, and I want it on my iPhone, and I want it cheap or free. Any company that is still trying to sell me paper rather than information should go out of business, as should any company that sells me useless information (CNN).”

What kind of person is this? Does this selfish, self-absorbed rant represent the thinking of the average online consumer of news and information? What defines news, good reporting, and analysis? Simply put, is not news something that happened? Where does good reporting and analysis come from? From individuals – specialists, public officials, clergy, experienced journalists, scientists, physicians, educators, philanthropists et alia – who spend their days and nights using their intellects and wits and communication abilities to get as close as they can to the truth of a thing that they specialize in. Why does it follow to the likes of this Economist reader that the fruit of these endeavors, which come at a cost to the creators and distributors, should be set out on the Internet table for free?

Surely, those professionals who contribute expertise for publication, in whatever medium, expect to be paid by the circulators for what they have to offer. And the circulators, presumably responsible for vetting and fact-checking and the ennobling of syntax of articles by way of assuring its customers that the authors have credentials that make their assertions and musings worth the while, expect to be paid for their work.

It would be interesting, I think, if we could jump-start the new paradigm of news delivery by giving the employees of every newspaper and magazine company in the world two weeks off with pay? What then would the aggregators link to? Television or radio, those pilferers of newspaper items and ideas? The blogging set and their assertions and relentless recrimination?

It’s my guess that “news” by press release would soon flood the zone and the worldwide company of competent bloggers, having no way of tuning into the world’s happenings in the micro way that newspapers deliver it to them, would begin extensive reporting in an effort to inject credibility into their filings and, maybe, to fend off libel action. They might come up short of the cash to pay for Freedom of Information Act filings or legal protection, but no matter; you have to wing it some. And at the end of two weeks, they would be looking around for someone to pay them for what they had done.

Would the same salary paid to one of those vacationing out-of-fashion newspaper types be good enough?

Thomas F. Mulvoy Jr. is a retired managing editor of The Boston Globe who is now associated with Boston Neighborhood News, Inc., which owns and operates the Reporter.