The Internet revolution helped to accelerate the decline in print readership, and newspapers responded by offering their content for free on their new Web sites. In hindsight, this may have been a business mistake, but the motivation at the time was to attract new audiences and advertising for content on the Internet, where most other information was already free. Although the readership of newspaper Web sites grew rapidly, much of the growth turned out to be illusory—just momentary and occasional visits from people drawn to the sites through links from the rapidly growing number of Web aggregators, search engines, and blogs. The initial surge in traffic helped to create a tantalizing but brief boomlet in advertising on newspaper Web sites. But the newfound revenue leveled off, and fell far short of making up for the rapid declines in revenue from print advertising that accelerated with the recession.

The economics of newspapers deteriorated rapidly. Profits fell precipitously, despite repeated rounds of deep cost-cutting. Some newspapers began losing money, and the depressed earnings of many others were not enough to service the debt that their owners had run up while continuing to buy new properties. The Tribune chain of newspapers, which stretched from the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune to Newsday, The Baltimore Sun, and the Orlando Sentinel, went into bankruptcy. So did several smaller chains and individually owned newspapers in large cities such as Minneapolis and Philadelphia. In Denver, Seattle, and Tucson—still two-newspaper towns in 2008—longstanding metropolitan dailies stopped printing newspapers. More than one hundred daily papers eliminated print publication on Saturdays or other days each week.

In just a few years’ time, many newspapers cut their reporting staffs by half and significantly reduced their news coverage. The Baltimore Sun’s newsroom shrank to about 150 journalists from more than 400; the Los Angeles Times’s to fewer than 600 journalists from more than 1,100. Overall, according to various studies, the number of newspaper editorial employees, which had grown from about 40,000 in 1971 to more than 60,000 in 1992, had fallen back to around 40,000 in 2009.

In most cities, fewer newspaper journalists were reporting on city halls, schools, social welfare, life in the suburbs, local business, culture, the arts, science, or the environment, and fewer were assigned to investigative reporting. Most large newspapers eliminated foreign correspondents and many of their correspondents in Washington. The number of newspaper reporters covering state capitals full-time fell from 524 in 2003 to 355 at the beginning of 2009. A large share of newspaper reporting of government, economic activity, and quality of life simply disappeared.

Will this contraction continue until newspapers and their news reporting no longer exist?

Not all newspapers are at risk. Many of those less battered by the economic downturn are situated in smaller cities and towns where there is no newspaper competition, no locally based television station, and no Craigslist. Those papers’ reporting staffs, which never grew very large, remain about the same size they have been for years, and they still concentrate on local news. A number of them have sought to limit the loss of paid circulation and advertising in their print papers by charging non-subscribers for access to most of their Web content. They are scattered across the country from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Lawrence, Kansas, to Newport, Rhode Island. Although they have not attracted many paid Web-only subscribers, their publishers say they have so far protected much of their print circulation and advertising.

Leonard Downie Jr. and Michael Schudson are the authors of "The Reconstruction of American Journalism." Leonard Downie Jr. is vice president at large and former executive editor of The Washington Post and Weil Family Professor of Journalism at Arizona State University's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Michael Schudson is a professor of communication at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.