Newspapers are great aggregators. There’s something for everyone, at least everyone who reads, a newspaper—news, gossip, sports, recipes, crossword puzzles, sudoku—whatever.

The Internet, however, seems to go in exactly the opposite direction. There’s something for every taste on the Internet, it’s true, and that’s part of the problem. Between cable television and the Internet, you need never be exposed to a viewpoint or to information that conflicts with your personal worldview. We have Fox television for conservatives and MSNBC for liberals and CNN is somewhere in between. But none of them really covers the news, and Fox and MSNBC cherry pick the “facts” they report and then they make sure to present them in a way designed to make  you also see things from their point of view.

As for the Internet, you have a million (maybe only hundreds or thousands) of choices, but rare—outside of traditional news sources like the New York Times or the Washington Post, or one that takes its news from them—is a site that’s comprehensive. You can go to a sports site, or a political site, or a crossword site, or an almost anything site, but as newspapers fade away, the opportunity for a broad-based perspective possibly will fade with them.

What’s wrong with that? The political consensus in America is already shredded. If we retreat into our own ideological silos, each of us to the perspective we’re comfortable with while shutting out what we don’t want to hear, the prospects for unity, rather than division, will decline. We will be more divided and not better informed. If we can pursue our particular interests by going to sites that deal only with those, we won’t ever rub shoulders with information that we’re not interested in, however important it may be .

Alternatively, of course, someone—or some corporation—may indeed put together a comprehensive news site—but then we’ll be getting just that—a corporate point of view with all the focus on the bottom line that is doing so much damage to journalism now.

Newspapers are far from perfect, and the idea of objectivity is chimerical. But the prospects offered by the Internet take us down a road that could be dangerous for democracy.

We’ll talk about that next time.

We live in an age of aggregation. Supermarkets have replaced vegetable stands and butcher shops. Pharmacies have now become drug stores, which carry cosmetics, shampoo, snack and groceries, and, incidentally, fill prescriptions. Shopping malls make it possible to buy more than we really need in one place.

Newspapers are another aggregator. Besides national, foreign and local news, newspapers offer sports, recipes, household hints, calendars of coming events, reviews of movies, plays and books (although reviews may soon be a thing of the past). In days gone by, if your town had a good newspaper, you could keep up with your community and the rest of the world just by reading your local paper.

Times have changed. Newspapers are closing all over the country, but a lot of people don’t seem to mind because they can still get their news on the Internet. The New York Times and The Washington Post, to name two papers that certainly deserve to be called “good”, still offer news up for free on the Internet.

You can also go to Google, or Yahoo, or any number of other sites and get news without paying. Where do they get their news? Google and Yahoo and a lot of other so-called news sites get their news either directly or indirectly from conventional, old technology sources, like the New York Times, The Washington Post or the Associated Press.

But what if newspapers went out of business entirely? Where would Google, Yahoo and the rest of the free news sites get their news? Would they build their own news-gathering organizations? Would they charge for it? Would readers be willing to pay, and, if so how much? Google certainly could afford to create a news gathering organization. It would only cost a billion dollars or so (maybe more) to build a national and international news operation, but would the investment be worth it?

Local news might be another story. In many instances, local news as we know it might just disappear because there wouldn’t be enough money in it to make it profitable for anyone to set it up.

We started out by assuming that Google or Yahoo or someone would be willing to make the investment required to build a decent news organization.

But what if none of them was willing? What then? We’ll talk about that possibility, and the new world of disaggregation—or fragmentation—next time.

It’s no revelation to say the American newspaper industry is facing a crisis, even a matter of survival. Newspapers pre-date the Republic. They have been our foundation of news for more than 300 years. Neither radio nor television ever succeeded in replacing newspapers as our main source of news.

Even today, with the viral growth of the Internet, newspapers remain the foundation, albeit an increasingly shaky one, of news here, but it’s undeniable that we’re witnessing the end of an era. The numbers are quite clear. In 1940, when the population of the United States was 150 million, American newspapers sold 41 million copies a day. By 1945, 48 million copies were sold every day. The growth in circulation continued, although at a slower pace, until 1984, when it peaked at 63 million. By then, U.S. population had grown to 236 million. Newspapers were still profitable, very profitable in many instances, but newspaper owners were becoming aware that circulation wasn’t keeping pace with the population growth.

The trend changed in 1984. By 1994, daily circulation was down to 59 million. Ten years later, it was 54.5 million. Between 1994 and 2007, daily paid circulation declined by nine million copies. (U.S. Census Bureau,Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2010, Table 1099. Daily and Sunday Newspapers—Number and Circulation, Total:1991 to 2008 and by State, 2008) The number of daily newspapers dropped from 1,548 to 1,422. The decline continues.

What, if anything, is going to take the place of news on paper in America? The most obvious answer is the Internet, but that begs the question where will Internet news come from? Behind most of the “free” news websites are newspapers. They supply the wherewithal to gather and publish what we read, whether we get it on paper or on a computer screen. Newspapers are still footing most of the bill. Secondary websites that feature news often are getting it by rewriting material they’ve cadged from newspaper sites or from the Associated Press, which is still fundamentally a creature supported by newspapers.

Televised news, now leaner than ever,  would be helpless without newspapers offering up a menu of stories for local stations to browse through to decide what to cover. National Public Radio makes a valiant effort to cover Washington, America and the world, but there aren’t enough hours in the day to do it justice, especially when the average news item is two or three minutes long and news reports are only two hours in the morning, and another two in the evening

Change is always painful. Those of us who devoted our professional lives and made our living at newspapers lament the passing of the old order. But there’s no use in crying over spilt milk or trying to figure out how to turn the tide. Some of the proposed solutions, such as government- subsidized news gathering and publishing in one form or another, promise to create more problems than they would solve. No matter how well insulated news organizations would supposedly be, inevitably politicians would claim the right to look over the shoulders of reporters and editors as they decide what to publish and what not to. Who pays the piper calls the tune. It’s just that simple.

None of the proposals—whether for micropayments, altruistic angels purchasing failing newspapers, government subsidies, or any variation or combination of them—holds out a remote promise of being able to generate the amount of income needed to support the level of journalistic enterprise we have had and continue to need in order to provide our citizens with the information they require to sustain democracy in America. We are surely all too aware that there are plenty of voices, and more than adequate resources to fund them, that are ready to invent, or distort, news to help shape the future in ways that we will find grotesque.

There are, however, some promising efforts being made to continue the finest traditions of American journalism. A number of organizations involved with investigative reporting have formed a consortium to further their shared goal of protecting the public interest from government, corporate and other special interests.  Where will the money come from to support these efforts? Will it be enough to take up the slack as newspapers fade away.

A great deal of attention is being paid to the promise of the Internet—to its speed, to its ubiquity. Anyone, supposedly, can now be a reporter. Anyone, like me, with a computer, a little money, opinions to air and a little (or a lot) of ego can go online, set up a soapbox and start preaching. Whether or not we get heard is another matter. In fact, the profusion of news and opinions creates a problem.

Is more necessarily better? How can we choose what to read? With so much available, how will we know where to look and what to look for? Go to look for something on Google and you could wind up with more than a million choices. With all this “information” instantly available, how are we going to judge its accuracy? How will we know what to believe and trust and what to be skeptical about? How will the truth catch up with the viral spread of a lie? And how long will it be before fat corporations muscle their way in to dominate this new medium and drown out other voices?

These are the kinds of questions I want to bring up for discussion here in the coming weeks and months. Won’t you join in?