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What do you get when you cross a column with a blog? Add to ...

If all the predictions come true, the world will soon be overrun with trees.

Hardly a week goes by without word that yet another large daily newspaper - Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Rocky Mountain News - has gone down or is at least teetering, as in the case of the Boston Globe.

Newspapers have become an "endangered species," Massachusetts Senator John Kerry told a Washington hearing this month on the future of journalism. There's even one newspaper expert, Philip Mayer, who claims he can circle the moment on the calendar - spring of 2043 - when newsprint officially dies in North America.

I don't expect to be here to read about it - wherever and however that sad news happens to be delivered.

It is hard to believe how profoundly things have changed in this business in recent times. That hoary old line - "Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel" - now sits on the same scrapheap that holds such phrases as "carriage return" and "carbon paper."

It is not only possible for people to fight back now - without buying so much as a drop of ink - but also newspapers themselves have to fight, or die.

Arthur Miller's half-century-old observation that "a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself" has never been more true. It may, however, come up a bit short, as borders are increasingly irrelevant so far as digital chatter goes.

With everyone from big-city mayors to movie stars to pro athletes Twittering, and everyone else, it seems, firing off personal blogs faster than you can download them, it does raise one intriguing question: If everyone is talking, who's listening?

No one really knows, but that hardly stops the experimentation to find something new that connects.

A couple of years back Time magazine asked "are we doomed to get our news from some acned 12-year-old in his parents' basement recycling rumours from the Internet echo chamber?"

Of course not. If experience has taught those of us in the journalism business anything, it is that the mushrooming world of blogging - "writing out loud," American author Andrew Sullivan calls it - is almost entirely dependent on the shrinking world of reporting.

There is nothing wrong with comment, but a great deal wrong with comment that has nothing to comment on but other comment.

In some form - somewhere, perhaps, between the printing press and telepathy - old-fashioned journalism will have to survive simply to feed the beast.

And so, we experiment. Last week, The Globe and Mail, which has long led the digital field in Canadian journalism, launched a redesigned website.

This week, This Country has a new incarnation on globeandmail.com -- a hybrid between column and blog, a "Clog," as we jokingly refer to it around the office. We hope it will serve as a "bridge," if you will, between our newspaper and our website.

A quarter-century ago I was another "experiment" at another daily newspaper. I was the first reporter assigned one of the first portable computers - Radio Shack's TRS-80 - which the manufacturer claimed would revolutionize journalism.

It was a flat rectangle with a screen about the size of a credit card. It held one short article at a time. You filed over a payphone, using rubber couplers. The story travelled letter by letter - you could watch your story go! - and it sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. But it did revolutionize the game.

It took me one use of this little white machine to realize this was my ticket out of the office. If you could now file from home and on the road, what was the point of sitting at a desk waiting for the coffee cart? I've never looked back and have filed from virtually every place in the country.

The change in speed has been astonishing, and goes far, far beyond the ability to send entire manuscripts as quickly as the old "Trash 80" sent the letter "a."

My life in this business began in magazines, the monthly Maclean's and the weekly rotogravure supplements. Story lead time was two months and, weeks after your story appeared, you might get a handwritten letter in the mail complimenting you on your story or taking issue with your facts.

No more. Monthlies became weeklies and newspapers became daily "weekly newsmagazines." The 24-hour news cycle is 24 minutes on its way to 24 seconds.

Today, daily journalism has become much like professional sports, paycheques excepted, in that reporting and commenting are now played out in a large arena with watchers reacting every time you touch the puck/keyboard.

And like sport, this ability to provide instant, or nearly instant, feedback brings out surprising, sometimes shocking, passion.

If for daily newspapers the web has become the tail that wags the dog, it has also become its bark. Just check the comments on any given day for any given story.

Yet if all I am is insipid, stupid, humourless, ill-informed and a known patsy for the (take your pick) Liberals/Conservatives/NDP, then I count myself lucky compared to the missives fired off to various colleagues. If truth is the first casualty of war, then reflection, it might be argued, was the first casualty of the Web.

That said, the Web is also the place of enormous, much of it unimaginable, potential. No one any more bothers to argue that point.

Not that long ago, Arthur Sulzberger Jr. was asked if he thought his New York Times would still be on the stands in five years.

"I really don't know," he said. "And you know what? I don't care, either."

What he did know, he added, is that "the Internet is a wonderful place to be - and we're leading there."

We feel the same.

Follow on Twitter: @RoyMacG

 

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