Does traditional media have a future?

Old Media squared off against New Media as a US Senate panel examined the future of journalism in the digital age.

The demise of the newspaper industry took center stage as a Texas newspaper publisher, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, a top executive from Google and the founder of The Huffington Post website traded jabs in a Senate hearing room on Wednesday.

Senator John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet, called the hearing saying he was concerned that "newspapers look like an endangered species."

"As a means of conveying news in a timely way, paper and ink have become obsolete, eclipsed by the power, efficiency and technological elegance of the Internet," the former Democratic presidential candidate said.

The senator from Massachusetts noted that new media outlets were springing up on the Web but asked "whether online journalism will sustain the values of professional journalism the way the newspaper industry has?"

Kerry said he did not know what role, if any, government should play in ensuring the United States continues to have a thriving press but it was clear something had to be done in the face of the collapse of the newspaper industry.

Two major dailies, The Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, have shut down in the past few months, casualties of the dramatic change in the media landscape brought about by the emergence of the Internet, and dozens of others are threatened, including Kerry’s hometown Boston Globe.

Several US newspaper groups have declared bankruptcy in recent months among them the Tribune Co., owner of the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, the Baltimore Sun and several other newspapers.

Among those testifying on Wednesday was David Simon, a former reporter at the Baltimore Sun who has moved on to a successful career as an author and a producer of the hit HBO television series "The Wire."

Simon said newspaper publishers were largely to blame for their predicament because of "short-sighted arrogance," mismanagement and venal profit-seeking.

But he said he was not encouraged by a "New Media" that "leeches reporting from mainstream news publications, whereupon aggregating websites and bloggers contribute little more than repetition, commentary and froth."

"High-end journalism is dying in America and unless a new economic model is achieved it will not be reborn on the Web or anywhere else," Simon said.

He said the industry was "going to have to find a way to charge for online content" and urged Congress to relax anti-trust prohibitions to allow newspaper owners to discuss such issues as protecting copyrighted material.

James Moroney, publisher of The Dallas Morning News, called for tax relief and a limited anti-trust exemption, saying newspapers would fare better if they could negotiate en bloc with aggregators such as Google News.

Google does not pay newspapers for the links to articles it posts on Google News but the Internet giant’s envoy to the hearing, vice president Marissa Mayer, argued that it drives traffic to newspaper websites.

"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," she said.

"Newspapers use that Web traffic to increase their readership and generate additional revenue," she said, adding that papers can always opt out of having their stories displayed on Google News.

"We don’t want to pull out of the digital ecosystem," responded Moroney. "We just want fair compensation for the content that we publish."

Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of the successful website that bears her name, said nothing was to be gained from "content creators attacking Google" and too much of the present debate revolves around the fate of newspapers.

"The future of quality journalism is not dependant on the future of newspapers," Huffington said. "We are actually in the midst of a golden age for news consumers.

"The discussion needs to move from ‘How do we save newspapers?’ to ‘How do we strengthen journalism? — via whatever platform it is delivered’," she said.

US Senator Ben Cardin made an appearance to promote legislation he has introduced that would give non-profit tax-exempt status to newspapers, a proposal embraced by several of the panelists.

"American journalism has entered a phase of creative destruction," Cardin said, adding that "the rate of destruction is far outpacing the ability of new insitutions to replace what is being lost."