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US Lawmakers Consider Measures to Save Newspaper Industry

A number of major American newspapers are going bankrupt or closing altogether as a result of a dramatic shift in the media landscape brought about by the emergence of the Internet. U.S. lawmakers are concerned about the impact the situation may have on an informed electorate - which is so important to American democracy. They are considering legislative measures to save the newspaper industry. But proponents of new media argue the news business has never been more vibrant. Here's our look at the national debate over the future of journalism.

Major American newspapers have been hit hard by a shift in readership to free Internet sites and a sharp decline advertising revenue.

Since the beginning of the year, Denver, Colorado's 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News was forced to close and the 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer stopped printing and went online. Other major newspaper companies, including the owner of the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, have filed for bankruptcy protection.

The plight of the newspaper industry has elicited the concern of Washington's politicians, including U.S. President Barack Obama.

At the White House Correspondents' Association dinner in Washington Saturday night, the president noted the impact that sweeping changes in technology and communication are having on the field of journalism.

"I know that each newspaper and media outlet is wrestling with how to respond to these changes, and some are struggling simply to stay open," said President Obama. "But it's also true that your ultimate success as an industry is essential to the success of our democracy."

On Capitol Hill, Senator John Kerry, a Massachusetts Democrat, recently chaired a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on the subject.

"Today, it is fair to say that newspapers look like an endangered species," said Senator Kerry.

U.S. lawmakers are considering legislative action to sustain the newspaper industry.

Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, is proposing that newspapers operate as nonprofit organizations, making them eligible for the same tax breaks given to charities and churches.

"We need to save our community newspapers and the investigative journalism that they provide," said Senator Cardin.

But representatives of online media outlets say concerns over the state of journalism are overblown. Arianna Huffington is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the news website, The Huffington Post.

"Despite all the dire news about the state of the newspaper industry, we are actually in the middle of the Golden Age of news consumers, who can surf the net, use search engines, access the best stories from around the world, and be able to comment, interact, and form communities," said Arianna Huffington. "Journalism plays an indispensable role in our democracy, but it is important to remember that the future of journalism is not dependent on the future of newspapers."

Marissa Mayer, a vice-president of the Internet search-engine company, Google, says her firm is helping enhance newspaper readership.

"Google News and Google search provide a valuable free service to online newspapers specifically by sending interested readers to their sites at a rate of more than one billion clicks per month," said Marissa Mayer.

But Google does not pay newspapers for the links to articles it posts on its website.

James Moroney, publisher and chief executive officer of the Dallas Morning News, called on lawmakers to revise antitrust law to allow newspapers to group together to seek a larger share of revenues collected by online news aggregators.

"If the newspaper industry acted in concert, there might be an opportunity then for all of us to have our own intra-industry level playing field, and then be able to go to, en masse as an industry, to the Googles and so forth, and say we want to be paid for consent to take our information," said James Moroney.

Moroney questions whether Internet sites could cover expensive newsgathering events, such as wars. Steve Coll, a former managing editor at the Washington Post, is equally skeptical.

"Even the most optimistic practitioners of the new models tend to accept a world in which web-based publishers or aggregators could afford, for example, to simultaneously fund and operate professional journalism bureaus in Baghdad, Kabul, Islamabad, Europe and Asia is simply not foreseeable at present," said Steve Coll.

David Simon, a television producer and former reporter for the Baltimore Sun newspaper, said web-based publishers are not filling the gap left by the closure of community newspapers in the coverage of local politics. He warned about the potential for local politicians to run amok without the press acting as a watchdog.

"The next 10 or 15 years in this country are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption," said David Simon. "It is going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician."

Senator Kerry is promising to hold additional hearings on the future of the newspaper industry in the coming months.