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What happens in a news drought?

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Robert F. Bukaty/AP

(Read caption) Thyra and Joe Galli read up on political news on the Internet and with print newspapers at their home in Portsmouth, N.H.

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It’s old news that newspapers are in trouble. Younger readers are not subscribing. Older readers are letting their subscriptions lapse. Why pay for news when there is so much for free on the Internet, TV, radio, and on proliferating video screens encountered everywhere from elevators to taxis to checkout lines?

But if there seems to be an ocean of news out there, a decreasing number of newsrooms are producing it. Much of what looks like news is recycled from a few primary sources (mostly newspapers) and fluffed out with celebrity and sports items. That would be OK if serious news came along for the ride. But increasingly, serious news is being left behind.

Newspaper editors always knew that serious news needed clever packaging to get in front of readers’ eyes. They put stories about crimes and lost dogs on Page 1. They assembled teams of opinionated sports-writers and ran pages of comics and games, tips for handymen and homemakers, advice columns for lonely hearts, and horoscopes for the proudly gullible. 

They knew you had to buy a newspaper to get coupons, classified ads, and TV listings. In the process, they also slipped in news from the school board, statehouse, and city council. 

Most people didn’t read what news wags called “DBIs,” dull but important stories. But some key people did: politicians, civil servants, activists, prosecutors, thought leaders, and other journalists. As Jessica Bruder shows in a recent report in the Monitor Weekly, that small but influential group was often enough to focus attention on a problem, expose wrongdoing, and push for reform. 

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