It's the end of an era for newspapers and journalism. That much everyone can agree on.
Some major cities eventually might not have a daily print newspaper -- and those that will likely will have newspapers dealing with depleted newsroom staffs.
But are newspapers' troubles a harbinger of a world without scrutiny on local officials -- or a gateway to a golden age of citizen journalism?
A subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, which is considering legislation that would enable newspapers to seek a nonprofit tax status, heard both views today.
Chairing the hearing was Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., whose hometown paper, the Boston Globe, is in business day to day amid labor disputes with its parent company, The New York Times.
Kerry said the hearing had nothing to do with the situation at the Globe, with its approximately 350,000 circulation.
Also asking questions was Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., whose hometown paper, the Murdo Coyote, has a circulation of just about 600.
Arianna Huffington, founder of the Huffington Post, said newspapers and publishers have to adapt to the Internet -- including sites like hers and Google, which aggregate news stories from other sites -- and learn to fund their activities through clicks instead of subscriptions.
The Huffington Post streamed the hearing live.
Leading The Huffington Post site during the hearing was a banner, tabloid-style headline for a story written by The Associated Press on jailed Ponzi scheme orchestrator Bernard Madoff and linked to video from NBC.
"The conversation must change from how will we save newspapers to how will we strengthen journalism," said Huffington. "What won't work and what can't work is to pretend that the last 15 years never happened."
Her foil at the hearing was David Simon, an erstwhile newspaper reporter and, more recently, the creator of HBO's "The Wire", which took a hyper-local and exhaustive look at the city of Baltimore.
The two disagreed on most points.
Simon lamented that his hometown paper, the Baltimore Sun, with a circulation of about 232,000, went from a reporting staff of more than 500 to fewer than 200 reporters. He said the public welfare is not served when newspapers lack the resources to cover local police beats, courts and city councils.
Leading the Baltimore Sun Web site during the hearing were stories about a local murder trial and a drug raid botched by the Baltimore Police Department.
"The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore zoning board meeting is the day I will be comfortable," said Simon, who predicted that with the demise of the printed local newspaper, "It is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician."
The Huffington Post, according to Huffington, employs 60 people, fewer, by far, for the vast universe of politics and lifestyle that it covers, than does the Baltimore Sun for its 232,000 subscribers.
But she pointed to a new, 10-person, investigative, nonprofit arm launched by Huffington Post and, more importantly, local citizen journalist groups that have sprung up in cities.
Huffington pointed to local citizen-driven sites like Voices of San Diego or Minnpost in Minnesota as examples of amateur journalists filling the information void in a "pro-am, professional-amateur" hybrid approach to reporting. She called on Congress to update their credentialing process to allow more bloggers and amateur journalists free access on Capitol Hill.
But Simon said bloggers and amateur journalists cannot commit the time to really unearth corruption.
"High-end journalism is a profession," he said. "I'm offended to think that anyone anywhere believes that American monoliths, like police departments ... and others ... can be held to task by amateur reporters."
Simon said that Huffington and aggregators, like Google, are benefiting from traditional media reporting while killing it by starving newspapers of their revenue stream. He called the Huffington Post model "self-defeating."
Unlike Huffington, Google News has no editors or original content.
James Moroney, publisher of the Dallas Morning News, said newspapers should be able to band together outside federal anti-trust laws and Congress should give them a limited exemption to anti-trust laws, so that they can formulate a way to charge for their content instead of feeling like they have to offer it free on their Web sites and hope for traffic boosts from Google and Huffington Post.
Professional reporters are not without their faults, Huffington argued.
"Let's not forget that the conventional [media] missed the two biggest stories of our time -- the run-up to the war and the financial meltdown," she said.
The clicks newspapers get from aggregators can be monetized, according to Marissa Mayer, vice president of searches at Google, the main aggregator of news on the Internet.
Mayer said newspapers have to start viewing their product not as a newspaper, but as an amalgam of individual stories that are marketed, much like the music industry has adapted to view each individual song on an album as a distinct product to be sold on iTunes or Amazon.com.
She said such innovation will save newspapers and journalism and it's "a product that can increase engagement."
Even so, Moroney said the millions of visitors to the Dallas Morning News Web site have not translated into enough revenue.
"The Dallas News gets 6 million unique visitors a month and it can't pay for two-thirds of the newsroom," Moroney said.
"Down to the article level?" he said of Google. "I believe it's down to the first four lines. They're making plenty of money down to the first four lines."
Steve Coll, a Pulitzer Prize winner and former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, said he was leery of large newspaper chains being given special treatment to collude on their content and charge for it. He endorsed the idea of allowing newspapers to become nonprofit entities and suggested that Congress consider revamping public service requirements for broadcasters who use public bandwidth.
"An old order is dying in journalism and a new one is rising," Coll said, "and I think the question is: [Are] there ways to reinforce the bridge between these two?"