When The Wandering Eye got his first job as a cub reporter, everybody was saying newspapers were becoming extinct. Forty years later, it looks like they were right.
On Tuesday the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ceased to exist as a "newspaper" in the traditional sense. The venerable (founded in 1863) daily will no longer publish a print edition; it now publishes only on the Web.
"The bloodline will live on," Roger Oglesby, the paper's publisher and editor, told employees Monday. But the new virtual P-I is a pale, anemic shadow of the former incarnation.
The Web version of the P-I has a staff of 20 instead of the paper's 165. Also, as the New York Times put it, it will "resemble a local Huffington Post more than a traditional newspaper," with heavy emphasis on "commentary, advice and links to other news sites, along with some original reporting."
The P-I is the first major American newspaper to entirely eliminate its ink-and-paper format, but the experts predict it will not be the last. And that makes The Eye more than a little uneasy.
Okay, the printed daily newspaper is an anachronism, an obsolete and doomed technology. And the Web is a new and exciting and dynamic communications medium. But that doesn't mean websites will be, or ever can be, an adequate substitute for newspapers.
From breaking up New York City's Tweed Ring to exposing the Watergate scandal, newspapers have always done the heavy lifting in this country when it comes to investigative journalism. Even today, papers like the Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal initially report most of the stuff that eventually makes it to the Web. They provide the basic grist for the legions of bloggers (including this one) to blog about.
Without the reservoirs of talent and experience found in the newsrooms of newspapers, how is the real work of journalism - the mundane grunt stuff as well as the big Pulitzer-caliber stories - going to get done? Who's going to do it?
Without the vast resources (human and financial) of a Washington Post and a New York Times, would Watergate or the Pentagon Papers ever have come to light? What website could - or would - tackle stories like those today?
Maybe someday there'll be a Web news operation with the resources, the professionalism and the dedication of a great newspaper operation, but it's hard to picture it. The trouble is that nobody has figured out how to make a website pay enough to cover that big a nut. And with all the free Web content out there it's not going to be easy to persuade people to spend $20 or $30 a month for a subscription to a news site, no matter how good it is.