In the U.S., Google’s core search engine business is protected from lawsuits by the doctrine of fair use. In Europe, however, where there is no legal doctrine of fair use, Agence France-Presse sued Google for copyright infringement. And The Associated Press worked out a deal last year with Google: the details are secret, but the deal seems to have Google breaking its usual precedent of not paying for content. Owners of copyrighted video content have been pushing back against search-engine companies. And Google’s ambitious effort to launch Google Books will test just how far the fair use doctrine stretches (See “Copyright Jungle,” CJR, September/October 2006). Should Google’s plan be constrained—either by litigation, by a precedent-setting royalty deal with book publishers, or by Congress—newspapers could be indirect beneficiaries.

An analogy is the saga of Napster and iTunes. As recently as 2001, it looked as if that genie was irrevocably out of the bottle. “File-sharing” programs like Napster had created a loophole that allowed free distribution of copyrighted music recordings. But the recording industry, sensing the stakes, marshaled its nerve and its lawyers. They successfully sued and shut down Napster as an illicit pirate-enabler. Apple then stepped forward with some of the most ingenious hardware and software of the Internet age—the must-have iPod and iTunes. Soon, delighted teenagers (and adults) were re-trained to pay for their music, this time at 99 cents a song. There is still a huge amount of decentralized file-sharing, but it is now at an economically bearable scale.

But if newspapers hope to collect royalties on arguably pirated content, the genie is much further out of the bottle than it was for record producers. Google is a far bigger player than Napster and it has hooked newspapers with ad partnerships. The public is accustomed to getting nearly all of its Web content free, and there is fierce opposition to a cable-TV model in which users would pay different amounts for different levels of content.

So neither of the deus ex machina solutions to the newspapers’ (somewhat exaggerated) financial plight—different ownership structures, or more favorable revenue sharing with search engines—seems likely. Rather, publishers need to work with what they have, investing in people and technology to get through this transition to the promised land of hybrid print-Web publishing.

Given that America’s newspapers collectively employ far fewer R&D people than Microsoft, Google, Yahoo et al., it is remarkable that newspapers have emerged as formidable Web innovators. And so far nobody has succeeded in replicating the range, depth, and quality of a newspaper in a Web-only daily (or hourly). You can click on Google News for a quick snapshot of breaking stuff, but most of that content originates in newspapers. “The cliché used to be, ‘Call me anything you want as long you spell my name right,’ ” says the Post’s James Brady. “Today, it’s call me whatever you like as long as you link to me.” Far more bloggers are linking to newspapers than vice-versa.

Web-only journalism has been surprisingly slow to challenge newspapers on their home court. When Slate launched the first online magazine in 1996, it appeared to signal a whole trend. But journalism turns out to be expensive. Slate briefly tried a $19.95 paid-subscription model in 1998, but lost far more readers than it gained income, and abandoned the approach. Even though it is now owned by The Washington Post, Slate was in many ways a higher quality journalistic product when Michael Kinsley began it. Today Slate, Salon, Huffington Post, and the rest, offer far more comment than news, since talk is cheap and reportage isn’t.

Four years after Slate, in November 2000, Josh Marshall launched his superb Talking Points Memo. As the Internet’s first I. F. Stone, Marshall looked to be the harbinger of independent, branded, Web-only investigative reporting, using his own diligence combined with tips forwarded by his tens of thousands of fans, and breaking a lot of news, sometimes scooping the dailies. Today Marshall presides over a small conglomerate of interconnected sites and colleagues, one of which is the excellent TPM Muckraker, with two regular employees who practice Marshall’s brand of investigation. As a whole, however, the much-expanded TPM now has a far higher ratio of comment and interpretation (some of it first-rate) to enterprise reporting.

In their modern classic, The Elements of Journalism, Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write that, “In the end, the discipline of verification is what separates journalism from entertainment, propaganda, fiction, or art.” Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, recounting a half-century’s decline of civic engagement (a decline that began long before the Internet), reports that newspaper readers are more likely than nonreaders to participate in politics and local public life. Cities and towns with newspapers have a more transparent civic and public life than those without them.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect.