Do Web readers value journalism enough to pay?

Looking into the media furor over swine flu last spring, I interviewed a UCLA epidemiologist, who told me it was best to assume “a posture of humility” in trying to assess how deadly the H1N1 virus would be.

“This is a virus we haven’t seen before,” said Dr. Robert Kim-Farley. “We don’t really know what will happen.”

I’ve thought often in recent months about those words, which just as easily might be applied to viral change infecting the news media.

We don’t know exactly what’s coming in the news business, only that change is coming fast. But if 2010 is anything like the year just ending, expect to see: more opinion, more partisanship, more (amateur) voices in the mix, more niche websites, less original reporting, less separation between news and advertising, and fewer paid journalists on the beat.


Information in the broadband, iPhone world will be more accessible, more quickly. Many consumers will find outlets that slice and dice information by subject, ideology and tone in ways they find pleasing. But with the citizenry increasingly fitted into a series of silos, the challenge of coming together for a civil, coherent conversation will grow greater.

The technological disruption shaking professional media, though, has empowered a new information army.

When mainstream reporters were driven out of Iran around last June’s presidential election, everyday citizens took up the story, using cellphones and Twitter accounts to beam tales of voter fraud to the world. YouTube images of Neda Agha-Soltan, 26, bleeding to death on the streets of Tehran, made it hard for us to turn away from brutality and repression.

Closer to home, a Twitter picture brought us the first image of the US Airways flight that made an emergency landing on the Hudson River. And citizen journalists -- including a Twittering firefighter in Santa Barbara and a stay-at-home dad/blogger in Altadena -- emerged as a couple of the most timely sources in the early stages of Southern California’s wildfires.


Despite the breathtaking speed and reach of the tech-driven news, in 2009 it remained largely up to more traditional media outlets to take the deeper reporting dives that help put the news in perspective.

After the unrest in Iran, it was newspapers that provided the best analysis of the post-election maneuvering, a trend that continued with last week’s death of leading dissident cleric Ayatollah Montazeri. Much of this analysis appeared on newspapers’ websites before being reshaped for the printed page.

After last summer’s Station fire, it was a couple of L.A. Times reporters, Paul Pringle and Dan Weikel, who led the way in explaining the delayed response by fire authorities.

The audience for that kind of exclusive reporting appears to remain robust -- with Internet traffic for many papers growing steadily, even as circulation of their printed editions declines.

The worrisome thing to some watchdog groups, such as the Project for Excellence in Journalism, is that the number of public interest reporters continues to decline.

The project found in a study this year that newspapers and other mainstream outlets in Washington continued to shed reporters, while specialty newsletters and websites catering to lobbyists and insiders grew.

“In short, those influencing policy have access to more information than ever, while those affected by those policies -- but not organized to shape them -- are likely to be less informed,” the study found.

A couple of misconceptions have become embedded in popular thinking about the media revolution. One is that newspapers can’t attract audiences, when in fact many have had substantial success shifting readers to their websites. They’re struggling financially because adequate advertising hasn’t followed.


A corollary has websites and blogs dominating the new landscape when, in fact, most are just as reliant on advertising as old media and also struggling to make a profit.

Multiple analysts expect that the new year will find at least a few outlets trying to impose fees for at least a portion of their online content. But none of the biggest players has announced concrete plans. And all fear losing large hunks of their audience if they make a paid “wall” too expensive or onerous.

Mainstream outlets have been struggling, in the meantime, to find new “profit centers” without damaging the independence and editorial integrity that have made them powerful brands.

Publisher Katharine Weymouth had to beat back an insurrection at the Washington Post last summer when she proposed hosting intimate “salons,” with paying guests joining the paper’s top editors and reporters, along with members of Congress and representatives of the Obama administration.

Critics protested that by charging for special access (anywhere from $25,000 to $250,000, for multiple sessions), the newspaper seemed to be offering privileged access to a select few, at the expense of its core audience.

The Worldwide Web’s egalitarian, free-market ethos has long suggested that such conflicts of interest would be sniffed out and exposed in short order. But consumer watchdogs, and others, are not so trusting of the wisdom of the crowd.

This fall, the Federal Trade Commission ordered that bloggers and others touting products online must disclose if they are getting cash or gifts in exchange for their kind words. Mommy bloggers, come clean.

The marketplace of ideas has never had so few barriers to entry. It’s never set prices for consumers so low. ($0 is hard to beat.) And it’s never varied so wildly in quality.


So we get websites (some of them adopting an authoritative, wire service tone) propping up all sorts of hokum: The U.S. government helped plan the 9/11 terrorist attacks; the president was born in Kenya or Indonesia; swine flu vaccinations are a threat not only to health, but to freedom.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Moynihan once admonished that we are entitled to our own opinions but not to our own facts. But the Web increasingly seems to be the refuge of those who like to construct an alternative reality.

One of the most underappreciated commentaries of the last year came by way of longtime political guru Stuart Spencer, in an interview with my colleague Steve Lopez.

Spencer, who helped craft gubernatorial and presidential victories for Ronald Reagan, talked about how dispiriting he found all of today’s partisan media coverage.

He told the Times columnist that he couldn’t stand to watch Fox News or MSNBC.

It might not have been a surprise to hear this Republican elder describe how weary he had grown of Chris Matthews’ endless prattling. But Spencer, about as close to Reagan as anyone living, also told Lopez he can’t stand the bloviating Rush Limbaugh. Give me information, not partisan screeds, the old Reagan hand said.

This may be starting to sound like a house ad, but Spencer talked about reading newspapers, including the L.A. Times and Desert Sun and, sometimes, the Wall Street Journal and New York Times.

Expect that value proposition to be put to the ultimate test: 2010 almost certainly will be the year that some newspaper companies put paid fences around some of their acreage on the once wide open Web.

Twitter: @latimesrainey