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Jill Abramson was in mid-sentence when the lights began to dim.
The New York Times managing editor continued addressing her audience, who'd gathered at Columbia's journalism school last Wednesday night to talk about the future of newspapers. But by the time she finished explaining why her paper wasn't going to allow reporters to blog personal opinions on its website, the encroaching blackness could no longer go unaddressed.
"Dark Victory?" she said, arching an eyebrow and scanning the room for anyone familiar with the 1939 weepie in which Bette Davis goes blind from a terminal brain tumor.
No laughs. The evocation of Davis's spunky young heiresswho's doomed and knows itmight have cut just a little too close to the topic at hand.
Optimistically titled "How Newspapers Can Survive (and Thrive) in the 21st Century," the Columbia Journalism Reviewsponsored event turned out to be a rather excruciating examination of why most of them probably won't.
Things started out hopeful enough. Panelists talked about hybrid platforms and interactive graphics and said the word monetize a lot. Robert Kuttner, the American Prospect co-editor who wrote the barely upbeat CJRessay that inspired the panel, whipped up a consensus that newspapers could save themselves by getting all Sumner Redstone on Google's ass. Newspapers should join the legal battle against unauthorized online distribution of their storiesor at least make a better deal. "The search engines," he said, "are taking too big a cut of our content."
But panelist Steven Rattner, who recently wrote an epitaph for newspapers in The Wall Street Journal, said the real problems ran deeper. Because readers will never linger over news online the way they did on the page, the advertising profits of yesteryear are gone for good. He suggested a new paradigm in which newspapers are regarded as a public service and supported by the citizenry, not subsidized by shareholders.
"It's not fair to ask the public shareholders . . . to bear the burden of providing something for the whole society's good," he said.
The Nation's Victor Navasky was the only one who seemed really interested in probing just what that meant. "Have you thought about the role of government?" he challenged the panel.
You could have heard a mouse click. Someone coughed weakly, followed by audible squirming in seats. Finally Kuttner spoke, pointing to government-supported models like the BBC or NPR as a way of keeping newspapers alive. But even he didn't seem enthralled by the idea.
Later, Abramson, still angry about being forced to testify at the Scooter Libby trial, blamed distrust of the government for the idea's chilly reception. "Especially," she said, "at a time when this particular government has created such a toxic environment for the press, with threatened prosecutions, criminal leak investigations, and the like."
"Could there be a day when you have more open minds about other models or some kind of government or public support?" she continued. "Possibly. But right now it's hard to be at all comfortable with that."
Or, as Bette Davis's character says when her doctor suggests the true cause of her headaches: "Suppose we just don't talk about it anymore."