WASHINGTON - Journalism in its modern form owes everything to the spread of general education in the 19th century. In the turbulent decade of the 1840s, governments in the advanced countries added education to their responsibilities. In a generation, millions of people could read and were hungry for reading materials like the New York Tribune, founded and edited by Horace Greeley.
By the 1900s, newspapers were a great business. As there were many newspapers in many cities, only a few had great influence -- and those were primarily in the regional centers of New York, Chicago and San Francisco. They included Joseph Pulitzer's New York World, Joseph Medill's Chicago Tribune and William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner. Newspapers were a means to great wealth, power and prestige. Proprietors saw themselves not only as political kingmakers but also as arbiters of fashion, taste and public rectitude.
From the birth of the modern newspaper (greatly sped along by the invention of the Linotype machine at the end of the 19th century), newspapers have been a good business. With annual profit exceeding 20 percent, newspapers have been among the most desirable businesses in America. In the 1980s and '90s, they were bought and sold at enormous multiples. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times looked invincible, eternal.
Then the Internet struck. Sales began to slide and advertising began to relocate to the Web. Publishers realized too late the folly of giving away their content on it. Journalists had favored this because they believed it would mean more readers, and publishers had thought the publicity would benefit them.
Massive adjustment is not new to the newspaper industry. But never has it been so imperative.
The 1960s saw the first wave of newspaper closures, particularly in New York, where five papers folded. Then, one by one, afternoon newspapers died across the country. Washington and Baltimore both supported afternoon newspapers, but they began to fail in the 1970s and '80s.
Once evening newspapers had been the jewels, bought by men and women who went to work early and wanted something to read before and after dinner. But television was changing the way people got their news.
The workforce was changing too; the service economy was replacing manufacturing. The new workforce read early and watched television late. This lifted morning newspapers into the stratosphere, particularly when they were a monopoly in their home cities. From the Washington Post to the Los Angeles Times, things were rosy. And for small-town monopolies, things were rosier -- almost a license to print money.
Mass circulation magazines, such as Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post, all hung it up. In their place, there appeared specialized magazines about wine, running, computers and sex. Publishing regrouped and entered what will be seen as a golden age.
The common thread was that the few, the publishers, served the many, the readers. As A.J. Liebling said, "Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one." But with blogs, the many are now publishing to the many, commented Andrew Glass of Politico.
Today, newspapers are an anachronism: perishable products, produced in a factory well before consumption and delivered, as often as not, by 10-year-olds. They are not so different today from the one that Greeley edited. So who needs them? Greeley might have said, "Go to the Web, young man."
The trouble is, you and I need newspapers. We need them to tell us what is happening in Darfur and eastern Congo; why Russia is playing games with gas supplies to Europe; why our veterans are not getting quality health care; and, yes, what are our elected leaders are doing.
Recently, the bureau system of coverage of Washington has collapsed. There is no one to watch the congressional delegations, a mission that once employed Washington reporters who kept their representatives in the light of scrutiny. Twilight has fallen for the news tradition, and with it the transparency of government.
There is no indication that Web-only publishers will generate the kind of wealth that will enable them to replace ailing newspapers. Like radio, the Web favors commentary, not reporting. Opinion cannot be better than the reporting that triggered it.
Llewellyn King, host of "White House Chronicle" on PBS, wrote this article for Hearst Newspapers.