I spent 15 years working for newspapers so it’s not surprising that despite being a digital creature, I still love reading newspapers – the ones made with paper that leave ink stains on your fingers.

Even though I’m no longer a journalist, it’s troubling to see how newspapers are crumbling before our eyes – victims of a business model that doesn’t work anymore, high debt loads brought on by strategic dreams about convergence, and a struggling economy.

The Rocky Mountain News closes, the Miami Herald sheds 200 jobs, the Globe & Mail offers severance packages, the Washington Post downsizes its business section, and on it goes.

There are many questions about what’s happening and who to blame but perhaps the biggest question is whether the struggles of newspapers really matter. Is the world going to be a worst place if newspapers (products made from dead trees) continue to disappear?

As much as I love newspapers, I don’t think it will matter if they go the way of the dinosaur. To me, newspapers are a “platform” that is being antiquated as new technology becomes a more efficient, faster and less expensive distribution vehicle. Newspapers are expensive to produce and distribute. But the economic model that lets newspapers thrive (e.g. classified advertising) no longer works so newspapers no longer make sense economically.

So, if the current newspaper business model doesn’t work, what replaces it? For all the buzz about citizen journalism, it’s a different kind of journalism that involves “raw footage” as opposed to the research and perspective the journalists/reporters churn out – and that bloggers love to chew on.

If newspapers are going to survive and thrive, their operating models must radically change. This includes:

Reporters need to be multi-functional. They need to write for the newspaper and the Web, they need to podcast, shoot video, blog, Twitter and use other social media tools. It will be an intense and challenging profession – a far cry from the days when journalists had the luxury of writing one or two stories a day.

Journalism will no longer be a middle-class profession. In the new economic climate, it doesn’t work if you’ve got a newsroom with reporters making $75,000 to $125,000/year. The new newsroom will see most journalists make $40,000 to $50,000 while a small number of investigative reporters and columnists (aka stars) will make $75,000 to $100,000. It may not be great money but the rewards of being a journalist go far beyond their paychecks.

Smaller newsrooms. Reporters will have to be more productive, and the stories they write will have to offer perspective (aka tell me what it means) as opposed to recounting what happened given the Web more than takes care of the “what happened” part.

A focus on local news. With fewer reporters, newspapers will thrive by covering what’s happening in their own backyards, while leaving national and international news to wire services.

Even if newspapers embraced all these changes, the number of newspapers will likely continue to disappear. While it’s troubling to watch, there will be no lack of news given new media organizations can be quickly created. An example is Politico, which was started by a group of ex-Washington Post reporters. The challenge, of course, will be creating business models that let these new players do well.

More: TVO’s The Agenda had a feature last night on The State of Newspapers. Look for the video to appear soon.

More II: Clay Shirky has a lengthy post on the world of newspapers, including this telling paragraph:

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

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