Amid newsroom layoffs, hard questions arise about future of print journalism

Taking a cue from the old saying about the British Empire, Baltimore's top daily newspaper once bragged about its prominent international coverage with an impressive motto: "The Sun Never Sets on the World."

It's hard to make that case anymore. Due to budget cuts, The Baltimore Sun is eliminating its London and Beijing bureaus, leaving it with just three full-time foreign correspondents.

The Sun, once the home of luminaries like H.L. Mencken, used to "hit above its weight," says Todd Richissin, the paper's London reporter, who is heading back to Baltimore. Now it's becoming more ordinary, he adds. "Having fewer reporters takes us further away from the truth."

His refrain is far from unique as newspaper newsrooms cope with a new round of cutbacks. Daily newspapers in New York, Boston, Houston, St. Louis, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and elsewhere are laying off or buying out hundreds of newsroom employees, as well as other workers. Last summer, The Christian Science Monitor cut newsroom jobs, too.

The moves come during an especially difficult time as the newspaper industry struggles with competition from the Internet and higher scrutiny of circulation figures after charges that some papers had inflated them. Disgruntled investors are calling for the struggling Knight Ridder media company to be sold, and subscriber levels continue to dip nationally. Weekday circulation of the nation's audited newspapers fell 2.6 percent in a six-month period compared with last year, the Audit Bureau of Circulations reported Monday. Of the 20 largest papers, the San Francisco Chronicle saw the largest decline: 16.4 percent. (The Monitor, not among the top 20, saw a 12.4 percent drop.)

Is retrenchment the answer? Critics accuse the industry of caring more about profits than top-notch journalism. Shouldn't newspapers hire more reporters, or at least refuse to reduce their numbers, as readers continue to drift away? Would, say, a computer manufacturer dare to produce shoddier products - and keep prices the same - during a downturn?

In fact, there's no easy way to connect staffing levels, let alone the elusive factor of "quality," to newspaper readership levels. "It's more of an art than a science," says Russ Mitchell, a veteran financial reporter and former editor of the magazine Business 2.0. "There is very little research that makes that link. Just observationally, if you've got three talented reporters covering City Hall, you're going to get a better, higher-quality job done than if you had one. But how that translates into circulation, into reader satisfaction, is unclear."

Some observers argue that newspaper journalism, as a whole, has never been better, despite big cuts during the recessions of the early 1990s and 2000s. Major newspapers with national readership still have huge newsroom staffs. Compared with a few decades ago, newsrooms are more professional - recent scandals notwithstanding - and more committed to diversity, both in staffing and in coverage.

The rapid rise in media criticism, meanwhile, has made it tougher for reporters to neglect major issues or get away with sloppy journalism.

If quality were directly related to circulation, "we'd be selling papers like mad," says David Sullivan, an assistant managing editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer. "We can't say, 'Sink more money into the editorial product and it will salve all wounds.' "

Other matters complicate the quality issue. For one thing, contrary to what journalists might like to believe, there's much more to newspapers than investigative series about politics and corruption. Just ask any editor who's tried to shrink the TV listings or drop the advice column.

"I'm not saying there's anything wrong with editorial quality," Mr. Sullivan says. "But people make the decision to buy the paper on things like how many grocery store ads you have, do you have late sports, how many comics do you run."

Then there's the mixed legacy of the corporate flavor of the newspaper industry. These days, family-owned newspapers are rare. On one hand, ownership by a large chain can improve the quality of smaller newspapers by raising standards and allowing journalists to gain access to better training. And the publisher of a corporate-owned paper may be less vulnerable to pressure from local businesses.

On the other hand, critics blame corporate profit mandates for the state of several newspapers - including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Miami Herald, and the Los Angeles Times.

There's no question that large newspapers, in particular, are facing major financial challenges as advertising dries up due to Internet competition and the consolidation of department stores. "It's not a major disaster," but newspaper advertising is clearly struggling, says Douglas Arthur, a publishing analyst with Morgan Stanley.

So what happens now? "Companies that invest in the product and make it better, and attract larger audiences, will do better over time," Mr. Arthur says. "But there's a lot of shorter-term pressures at work."

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