The newspaper, an enduring staple of American life, has never seemed more endangered.

After decades of declining circulation but relatively stable finances, the industry has been overwhelmed by the current recession and hit with an unprecedented and accelerating cycle of bad news - job cuts, closures, and bankruptcies.

The Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, for instance, filed for bankruptcy in February. The Minneapolis Star Tribune did so in January. Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the Baltimore Sun, among others, sought court protection from debtors in December.

The Rocky Mountain News in Denver folded in February.

Even the New York Times Co., which reported a $74 million first-quarter loss, had threatened to close the Boston Globe, which it owns, unless the Globe's unions agreed to significant contract cuts.

Given all of that, casual readers can be forgiven for assuming that the final days of ink-on-paper journalism are here.

Well, don't cancel your subscription quite yet. There is a fairly wide collection of experts who remain bullish about newspapers. They point, in part, to the huge demand for news - 74 million people still read a paper daily, a similar number use a newspaper Web site each month. The New York Times Web site drew 16.5 million unique visitors last month.

Yes, daily print journalism, particularly as practiced at large metropolitan newspapers, seems to be moving toward its last paper editions, but that is still years, possibly decades, away, according to those observers.

What time remains, proponents say, will offer an opportunity to resolve the great dilemma now facing newspaper companies: how to make their Web sites financially viable. Despite a rapidly growing audience - almost 74 million unique monthly visitors in the first quarter - the nation's newspapers have been unable to earn substantial revenue from their Web sites. Last year, online ad revenue was $3.1 billion, less than a tenth of that produced by the paper product. And that figure was down 1.8 percent from 2007.

With that in mind, there is a growing push for newspapers to begin charging for online content, something now being championed by newspaper mogul Rupert Murdoch. The Wall Street Journal, which already charges for subscriptions to its online site, is planning to offer nonsubscribers the option of paying for individual articles.

And there is a hope that new technology - slimmer, easier-to-hold electronic-viewing devices such as Amazon's Kindle - will ease the transition from paper.

The transition won't be pretty, experts warn. Newspapers will be increasingly thinner, with smaller staffs and more narrowly focused content as resources are squeezed. And there remains a question of how much of what is lost will be replaced by online journalism.

"There is going to be wrenching change, and we are going to see more destruction - I'm a victim of that destruction," said John Temple, former editor of the Rocky Mountain News. "But better things can come out of this. This is a terribly exciting time."

For the forseeable future, print remains a financially viable vehicle for news.

"Paper is a pretty good technology," Walter Isaacson, former editor of Time magazine, said in an interview on CNBC's Wall Street Journal Report With Maria Bartiromo. "I think we need a mix of technology, and we will always need a mix of technology. . . . Print is just one of those technologies, but it is a pretty darn good one."

When considering the future of newspapers, it is important to remember that this is not the first time the industry has faced a wave of closures. From the late 1970s through 1990, for instance, there was a dramatic decline in the number of afternoon papers, as readership patterns changed. Among the victims was the Bulletin, which folded in 1982.

Also, it is not just newspapers struggling to hold their own in the evolving, increasingly fragmented news marketplace: Television news, both local and network, has suffered declining viewership. Surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press have shown a steady slide in the percentage of people who said they watched television news. In 1993, for instance, 60 percent reported watching nightly network news. Last year, 29 percent said they did.

Still, there is no denying that newspapers have hit a particularly difficult patch - and not all of it related to the recession.

Total advertising revenue, for instance, has fallen in five of the last eight years. That is exactly the number of years it fell in the previous 50. Last year, it was down 18 percent, a record, according to the Newspaper Association of America. First-quarter ad revenue this year was projected to be down 25 percent to 30 percent, the worst drop ever.

Circulation also keeps sliding. The latest numbers show an across-the-board drop for the the nation's 25 largest papers. Almost half - including The Inquirer - saw declines in excess of 10 percent.

So what is there to be optimistic about?

Well, those are big declines, but against big numbers.

For instance, readership, while slipping, still remains high - more than 74 million people had read a paper daily as recently as 2007, according to Scarborough Research.

And last year, newspapers generated almost $35 billion in ad revenue. Even struggling papers bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue. In 2008, for instance, The Inquirer generated $398 million.

The vast majority of the nation's midsize to small papers are actually doing quite well, according to industry analyst John Morton, with most earning profit margins still close to 10 percent.

The trouble is among the upper-tier, big-city newspapers, which have been hardest hit by the loss of classified revenue. While all are suffering, those struggling the most, Morton said, fall generally into two categories: second papers in two-paper towns (like the Rocky Mountain News) and papers recently purchased in highly leveraged deals (The Inquirer and Daily News, and those owned by the Tribune Co.).

It is the latter group that makes up most of the papers now in bankruptcy. Except for payments needed to cover their debt, many of these papers would be still showing a profit. The Inquirer, for instance, had a positive cash flow of $36 million - but for the funds needed to cover payments on nearly $300 million of debt.

The problems at all papers have been exacerbated by the unexpected, and in some ways unprecedented, economic collapse of the last year.

"It has been a trifecta - the auto-industry collapse, real estate collapse, and the credit crunch," said Ed Atorino, a media analyst with the Benchmark Co.

Atorino and Morton predicted a bounce in advertising revenue once the economy has righted itself.

The biggest bump might be expected in retail and other local display advertising, as well as national advertising. Classified ads, which have migrated heavily to the Internet, are expected to remain soft for newspapers.

"In all past recessions, in the recovery year, newspapers were able to recapture all of the ad revenue they had lost," Morton said. "This time, a significant amount of ads, particularly classified ads, won't be coming back."

Which will only intensify the pressures on papers to cut costs.

"Going forward, papers are going to be skinnier, with smaller staffs," Atorino said. "They will have to be more targeted. They might be published less than seven days a week."

While all those changes are money-savers, they also serve to make papers less attractive to consumers. Cutting back, which always means fewer reporters and editors and fewer pages of news, diminishes overall quality and gives customers another reason to stop buying or subscribing.

"The trend is clear: Readers have already been migrating from paper to online," said Ken Doctor, a media analyst for the research firm Outsell. "Newspapers only accelerate that trend when they cut back."

What remains troublesome, however, is the inability, thus far, for newspaper Web sites to generate significant revenue.

"There just isn't a business model in place that will come anywhere close to supporting the number of reporters and editors we have seen in major American cities," Doctor said.

Online advertising had been seen as a hoped-for savior, but thus far has fallen short. To make matters worse, after four years of 26 percent to 32 percent gains, the category took an 18 percent drop last year.

This has prompted a drive to find new ways to generate revenue from the journalism that now appears free on newspapers' Web sites.

One path is to require large news "aggregators" - Web sites such as the Drudge Report - that pick up and post news from newspapers and the Associated Press to pay for that right.

The AP, in particular, has recently taken a hard line, announcing it would take legal action against sites that use the work of news organizations without permission.

"We don't plan for anyone to use our content unless they pay for it," William Dean Singleton, chairman of the AP and chief executive officer of MediaNews Group Inc., said last month.

It is a small step toward an even larger shift being urged by many in the industry - charging for access to online content in general.

"People are used to reading everything on the Net for free, and that's going to have to change," News Corp. chief executive Murdoch told a convention for cable operators last month in Washington.

Murdoch last year purchased the Journal, the only paper so far that has successfully adopted a system of charging readers for full access to articles online.

He confirmed in an earnings conference call this month that News Corp. was exploring ways to replicate that business model.

"That it is possible to charge for content on the Web is obvious from the Journal's experience," he said. "We are now in the midst of an epochal debate over the value of content, and it is clear that, for many newspapers, the current model is malfunctioning."

He gets no argument from Steve Brill, who recently launched Journalism Online, a Web site designed to serve ultimately as an Internet newsstand where readers can buy online subscriptions to publications or even single stories.

For it to work, however, he has to persuade newspaper publishers to reverse past practice and begin charging for their online product.

"It is as if 10 to 20 years ago, the nation's newspaper editors all went to Guyana with Jim Jones and committed suicide by agreeing to give it all away free," Brill said.

Beyond new funding models, there is continued hope that more existing readers can be coaxed to give up print, but not the news, if the electronic experience can be made less cumbersome.

To that end, Amazon.com has developed the Kindle, a slender, handheld device designed for reading electronic versions of books and newspapers.

Jeff Bezos, president and chief executive of Amazon.com Inc., and Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of the New York Times, announced a plan last week to offer reduced-price subscriptions to the Kindle editions of the Times, the Washington Post, and the Globe.

Gene Roberts, former editor of The Inquirer, sees Kindle-like devices as a key to holding on to readers going forward. He said he could envision papers providing the devices free to readers. Although the devices are expensive, about $500, Roberts said, a newspaper could recoup that cost in about one year's time.

More important, however, than how the paper is delivered, Roberts argued, is what kind of paper is delivered.

"Newspapers, to some degree, make their own destiny," he said. "If they keep cutting back on the news and people who gather and edit the news, they have a problem. If they manage to put out newspapers with something to read in them, and citizens feel comfortable they are getting what they need to know, then I see a very long life for newspapers."

Contact staff writer Christopher K. Hepp at 215-854-2208 or chepp@phillynews.com.