Investigative reporting has long been the staple of mainstream media. And the mainstream media has almost single-handedly wielded the clout and the cash to fight for the public's right to know.

If Americans appreciate the right to criticize public officials, or look at the local government's budget — well, they owe it largely to the mainstream media, as two of the nation's top media lawyers say.

They might not realize it, but "citizens have a lot to thank the mainstream media for," says attorney Lucy Dalglish, who heads the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Take a look at almost every single open records law, open meetings law, or lawsuit brought in violation of one of those laws in the U.S., Dalglish says. Those laws guarantee the public's right to know what its government is doing. The fight for those rights was brought and paid for by the mainstream media.

"Anything that has to do with the public's right to know about what goes on in its institutions up to now has been funded by the media — mostly newspapers," Dalglish said.

The right to witness a trial or see a jury be selected. The protection against censorship. The right to see government documents. All these rights were solidified through lawsuits brought by newspapers or press associations, she said.

But all that is at risk now, Dalglish adds.

Fewer media companies — or individual news outlets — are willing or able to take on large legal fights, she said.

"A blogger in his PJs in the basement is not going to have the resources to pull off — let alone know how to go about — bringing one of these fights to court," she said. "This is a scary time."

And it's not just citizen rights at stake, said Ken Paulson, an attorney and longtime newspaper editor, who recently left USA Today to head the Freedom Forum foundation and the Newseum.

"If newspapers go down, corruption will go up," Paulson said. "There's just no question about it."

And, Paulson contends, ongoing media scrutiny not only wards off corruption, but pushes government and business leaders to make better choices.

"That's not necessarily rooting out corruption," he said. "But it's an immense service to the public."

Many people, including Paulson, have talked for years about the importance of a free press to a free society. Now there is new evidence of journalism's impact on democracy.

A Princeton University study this year found that the closure of the Cincinnati Post, which ceased publication on the last day of 2007, had a measurable impact on the democratic process in the 48 suburbs that depended on the Post for news.

The study said the loss of the paper made the local political process less "vibrant." Fewer people voted. Incumbents were more likely to retain power. And fewer candidates challenged them for election.

The study's lead author, Princeton economist Sam Schulhofer-Wohl, said he hopes to do more follow-up studies. If his findings hold true in other cities that have lost daily newspapers, then "local politics will become less competitive" there, too, he said. With three major daily newspapers and several smaller papers idling their presses in the first half of 2008, he should have plenty of examples to study.

To hear some people tell it, there may be hardly any newspapers left by the time Paulson becomes president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 2011. Earlier this year, the 87-year-old organization voted to change its name, dropping "newspaper" altogether to become the American Society of News Editors.

Paulson, however, doesn't believe the newspaper is going away any time in "the next 25 years." But he says he is worried about the future and what it means for America. "Newspapers have historically been forces for good," Paulson said. "Most cities' civic development was encouraged, enhanced or driven by the local newspaper."

He cites libraries, zoos, and other public projects that were spawned by the editorial voices of newspapers.

"There's a huge benefit to a voice that constantly calls on the community to make progress," Paulson said. "I think that's at risk."

In the past two years, 25,000 fewer pairs of journalistic eyes are watching over government, business and other powerful entities on behalf of the public. A wave of newspaper bankruptcies and closings - stretching from Philadelphia to Chicago to Denver to Seattle - is likely to continue, analysts say.

There are fewer reporters in the nation's capital, and even fewer in the state capitals. Entire "I-teams" — those reporters devoted solely to investigative reporting — have been dismantled and some capitol bureaus completely shuttered. The staffs of many newsrooms — the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times — are now half what they once were. The Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center estimates that one of every five newspaper journalists who were working in 2001 is now gone.

Newspaper circulation peaked 15 years ago, in 1993, and has been falling ever since. Last year, newspaper circulation was just over 49 million, the lowest level since 1970.

Eleanor Farnen believes she can pinpoint the moment when the downfall began. Farnen is a media researcher at the University of Missouri and president of Strategists, a business consulting firm. She is also a former corporate executive for the giant industrial manufacturer Honeywell, so she knows something about corporate America.

Farnen says the start of the death spiral can be traced back four decades.

Al Neuharth had begun transforming Gannett from a little Rochester, N.Y., newspaper company into a media giant and the nation's largest newspaper company, now with 84 daily papers nationwide. Neuharth went to Wall Street for money. Gannett wanted funding to acquire newspapers, so it went public in 1967 on the promise of eye-popping returns. But to keep those returns high, Gannett — and the other companies that followed it to Wall Street — took what might have been invested in investigative reporting and applied it right to the bottom line, Farnen said.

"I really think Gannett going to Wall Street and making that promise was what really triggered the fall of newspapers," Farnen said. "I really think that was the beginning of the end."

Neuharth sees it differently.

Al Neuharth
Al Neuharth, former CEO of Gannett and founder of USA Today
"I guess I'd say just the opposite is true," said the 85-year-old icon of the Gannett empire, whose ongoing work includes a column in USA Today, now the nation's largest daily newspaper. "Going public gave most of our newspapers far greater resources."

For example, many of Gannett's newspapers would never have been able to afford a reporter in Washington, D.C., Neuharth said.

But Neuharth does allow one caveat.

"We said we can make 20 or 30 or 40 percent," Neuharth said. "I think as an industry, we — I was going to say misled, but that's the wrong word — we let Wall Street expect that this would be a regular quarter-to-quarter thing. They expected earnings would go up every quarter. They increased demands on us.

"But looking back on it, I don't think it was Wall Street expectations as much as newspaper executives' reaction to Wall Street expectations."

Either way, Gannett consistently delivered on its promises of high returns, posting 11 years of record quarters. Wall Street began expecting the other newspaper companies that had followed Gannett to the stock market to do the same. By the mid-1980s, publicly- traded newspaper company profits averaged a Gannett-like 20 percent. Some individual newspapers were making closer to 40 percent profit.

The owners' quest for high profit margins meant they often had to cut costs to keep profits high. And the place they usually headed first was the newsroom. But newsroom cuts, which Farnen said really began in the 1990s, hurt the quality of the news. When studies link quality and profit, most use a definition of quality that largely mirrors the bedrock attributes of investigative reporting: in-depth, accurate, fair, issues-oriented, enterprise reporting.

"In the newsroom, they began cutting good reporters -- and investigative reporting really took a hit," she said. "They were liquidating the brand. They were selling it off. People began to say, well, why am I buying the newspaper?"

Circulation began to drop, long before the internet became ubiquitous.

And it wasn't just the publicly-held news media. A 2002 Poynter Institute analysis found that staffing levels and cuts were similar in privately-held chains and independently-owned papers.

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