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What happens in a news drought?

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And that’s the way it was. A reader bought a bundle of news each morning, sugar and spinach included. As journalism analyst Clay Shirky put it, newspapers “supported the minority of journalists reporting actual news for the minority of citizens who cared. In return, the people who followed sports or celebrities, or clipped recipes and coupons, got to live in a town where the city council was marginally less likely to be corrupt.”

Now, the Internet is relentlessly unbundling news. The journalism compact has broken down – most obviously in the United States, but the same forces are at work around the world.

Some news organizations are trying to cope by charging Internet readers. (The Monitor currently doesn’t charge for Internet content.) But so-called paywalls bring about a new dilemma. Note, for instance, what happened as hurricane Sandy approached the East Coast in late October.

The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and others dropped their paywalls as a public service. Among others, media-watcher Mathew Ingram of GigaOM.com pointed to “the tension between the public purpose that many media outlets feel they have – to spread important information as widely as possible to those affected by it – and the need to commercialize that information in order to make money.” 

To put it another way: Are hurricanes of public importance but not the school board, statehouse, and city council? 

Reconciling money and mission is a huge challenge for news organizations, the Monitor included. And as our cover story makes clear, it’s not just journalists who have a stake in this.

John Yemma is editor of the Monitor. 

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