WASHINGTON - They like us. They really like us. Just don't expect them to help us.
A string of U.S. senators delivered so many lofty odes to the American newspaper at a Future of Journalism hearing this week, it almost made me blush.
When a Republican senator suggests you're something like a bulwark of democracy, you've got to smile.
But that doesn't mean newspapers command a winning majority around here. Not even in good times - and especially not now, when the government has a few other items atop its agenda, such as economic turmoil, dysfunctional health care and Islamic extremism.
So senators and a panel of experts mulled antitrust exemptions and nonprofit status for newspapers, but Wednesday's three-hour session had all the urgency of a confirmation hearing for postmaster general.
That left plenty of time for the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet to take testimony from a panel of experts who brimmed with New Media triumphalism, Old Media hand wringing and hopes for an old-new hybrid that will be the future of news.
I don't know which was scarier: hearing from Dallas Morning News Publisher James M. Moroney that his paper receives as little as 40 cents for 1,000 views of an ad on the paper's Web site, or listening as Arianna Huffington crooned in mesmerizing Greek-English that seetazooon joornolusts (that's citizen journalists) will make it all better.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., called the hearing because he sees newspapers as an endangered species, one that traditionally has provided the vast bulk of investigative and public-interest reporting.
Kerry and several other senators, particularly Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said they saw Web sites and amateur reporters providing information, but not of the quantity or quality of old-line news organizations.
The Huffington Post founder also celebrated Web upstarts such as Voice of San Diego that have had some success with investigative reporting. She touted her own launch of an investigative team and her plan to hire local reporters in a dozen cities.
I welcome all the upstarts. News consumers need more, not less. But even most of the newcomers concede that newspapers still provide the bulk of the news. And Huffington gets a little ahead of the facts when she claims that powerful new journalism is blooming in every corner of the nation.
Former Washington Post managing editor Steve Coll said he feared a lost generation of American journalism before new outlets step up to replace the old.
In the meantime, Coll held out hope that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities (among others) could support some of the watchdog reporting siphoned from old-media outlets.
I told my colleagues before I jumped the Metro to Capitol Hill that I would be back by cocktail time with the solution to all our problems. Newsies watching C-SPAN began slinging barbs long before the end of the hearing.
This makes me so angry. It's humiliating, one of Coll's old Post colleagues messaged me. Let us succeed or fail, but as a business, not a charity.
But why not throw in with a nonprofit or journalism school to, for example, pay for an investigative-reporting unit? More power to the news company that can figure out a way to get consumers to pay for some select content online, although I think it will be tough. We've only begun to explore the possibilities of truly immersing ourselves in the new universe of linking and shared content.
Bless our pals in the Senate for their kind words. But when it comes to saving the news business, we're probably going to have to figure it out ourselves.
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