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Here's a news flash from the future: Journalism lives. Newspapers live. If you like reading the folded, crinkly paper version of The Inquirer, as people did in 1829, you are still going to be able to do that 20 years from now in 2029.

Philadelphia Newspapers' delivery trucks await papers at the Schuylkill Printing Plant. Higher costs for commodities such as fuel, ink and paper are among the problems besetting newspapers in the 21st century.
Philadelphia Newspapers' delivery trucks await papers at the Schuylkill Printing Plant. Higher costs for commodities such as fuel, ink and paper are among the problems besetting newspapers in the 21st century.Read moreDAN Z. JOHNSON / File photograph

Here's a news flash from the future:

Journalism lives. Newspapers live.

If you like reading the folded, crinkly paper version of The Inquirer, as people did in 1829, you are still going to be able to do that 20 years from now in 2029.

Of course, you will pay more for the privilege. And as a fan of the ink-on-paper Inky, you will rank among the minority of readers, the majority preferring a wireless gadget that sends the news to their pocket.

"No single format will overtake the other," said Laine Cunningham, a North Carolina educator, writer and consultant who follows news-industry trends. "Just as movies have continued to run on-screen after video and DVDs became available, print versions of newspapers will continue to be produced."

Which is not to say that the changes of the next 20 years will not be dramatic and wrenching.

Here in the present, newspapers are getting hammered by the decay of the business model that sustained them for 200 years, even as their overall readership grows.

Like other big-city newspapers, The Inquirer's paid, print-edition circulation has fallen over time and continues to fall - to 288,298 on weekdays and 550,400 on Sundays, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation.

More and more, newspaper owners have argued that readership, not copies, should be the calculation. The Inquirer's readership of its print edition averages 833,669 people on weekdays and 1,504,941 on Sundays, according to Scarborough Research, which measures consumers' media preferences and habits.

The readership of the Web site, which offers news from The Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News, is big and growing. Figures compiled by Omniture, a Web analytics firm, show the site draws 4.5 million unique visitors a month. Some of those people read the print edition as well.

The number of pages viewed by those Web site readers has been growing about 40 percent a year. In March, when The Inquirer dominated coverage of the corruption trial of former State Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, recorded more than 60 million page views.

It is that "robust, muscular demand for our work" that assures Inquirer editor William K. Marimow that whatever changes come, the newspaper - the news organization - will continue to provide information of primary importance to people in the Philadelphia region.

"I don't think the demand is going to dissipate," Marimow said. "The change is the means of delivery."

And the structure of payment.

You will not have to wait until 2029 to see more newspapers charging people to read their Web sites, industry watchers said. Giving away the news has proved - shockingly - to be a poor means of producing income.

Inquirer publisher Brian P. Tierney said the newspaper would launch a paid-content model on its Web site before the end of the year. The details are being discussed.

Other, game-changing ideas are in the works.

One is E-paper, which looks and partly acts like paper, in that it can be rolled. In 2029, electronic paper could enable newspapers to offer all the advantages of print - portability, convenience, readability - in a format that provides minute-by-minute updates.

Improved digital translation devices could make it possible for newspapers to publish in several languages - offering a route to new readers and advertisers, said Andy Petroski, director of learning technologies at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology. The ability to publish The Inquirer in six languages - online or in print - would provide an opportunity to grow vast new audiences.

"I'm very optimistic," said Scot Kerr, president of Mediaspace Solutions, which helps companies place newspaper ads. "I've always said, newspapers may be slow to react, but once they react, get out of the way. Once they adopt a new way of doing things, they become a steamroller."

Christopher Harper, co-director of the Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab at Temple University, said he could see newspapers adapting the model of cable television. In the future, wireless newspaper subscribers would pay a basic rate for basic news content, with incremental increases for more detailed packages.

Consumers who wanted deeper coverage - of the Phillies, or bicycling, or the orchestra - would pay more for additional news.

Of course, these concepts are not close to becoming reality soon. And many people in newspapers fear time is growing short.

But the experiment that saves big, traditional news organizations may already have happened. We just do not know about it.

Thomas A. Edison believed his invention of the phonograph would spark a revolution - as a business dictation machine. He was less excited about the idea that it could become a profitable means for people to play music at home. And when David Sarnoff suggested that radio - at the time a way for ships to communicate - could become a popular, money-making "music box," his bosses thought he was nuts.

The point?

"Media move in unexpected directions - often through trial and error," said Carl Hausman, a Rowan University journalism professor who writes widely on news and advertising. "While the invention of new media is always expected to kill old media, that doesn't usually happen."

After nearly being destroyed by television, radio adapted and thrived. TV put an end to general-interest publications such as Life and Look, but the magazine industry did not die - it sprang back in specialized lifestyle niches.

The biggest, most complicated problem facing The Inquirer is a bright young woman named Octavia Payne.

Or rather, her and people like her.

Payne is 20, a devoted rock-wall climber from Baltimore who cares about world events and studies anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania.

She has never bought a copy of The Inquirer.

It is possible, she said, that she has never actually touched one.

"I don't ever see myself buying a newspaper," Payne said. "I'm just so used to getting it online for free."

That is a core problem as the newspaper moves into the future. The brainy, world-wise students at one of the region's top universities should be natural Inquirer customers. However, the loyalties of Payne and her classmates lie not with a particular publication, but in an aggregate of information gathered from a variety of papers and sources around the globe.

For them, news is what appears on your computer, not your front porch - and it does not cost a dime.

The Inquirer and other newspapers have to figure out how to capture revenue from people who read news online, from aggregators who compile news stories, and from advertisers who want to reach Internet audiences.

"The reason GM is failing is not because people don't want to drive anymore - it's because Toyota can make a better car for less," said Mark Ranalli, chief executive officer of Helium, a writers' Web site. "Likewise, people are not consuming less news. They are just consuming their news in different media formats with different economic realities."

Which means you will not have to wait 20 years to see big changes in newspapers, according to people who study the industry.

More newspapers will end their print editions and publish online, following the Christian Science Monitor. More will reduce the number of days they deliver printed papers to homes, similar to the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press. More broadsheets will become tabloids, and the broadsheets that endure will have fewer separate sections.

Don't like the miniaturized Sunday comics tucked into The Inquirer's TV guide? Stay tuned. More and more, papers will save money by condensing the printed product, so they can continue to employ people to report the news that is their lifeblood.

More news in more papers will be sponsored - an affront to traditionalists, and a rational, natural move to those who hear or watch radio and TV shows dependent on corporate sponsors.

One more thing: The delivery method will evolve. It must.

Driving trucks full of printed newspapers to drop-off points, and having people drive around throwing those newspapers onto front lawns, is too expensive and inefficient in an age where news moves from Center City to Shanghai at the push of a button. When the cost of paper stock jumps 20 percent or gasoline spikes to $4 a gallon, it stabs a lance into companies that rely on rolls of newsprint and fleets of trucks.

Print prospered because it was such an efficient means for conveying the news. It was the best delivery device - cheap, reliable, portable. But it is the news that is important, that people want and have traditionally been willing to buy.

"Newsgathering is not tethered to newsprint," said Christopher Kent, who thinks about the future at Social Technologies, a Washington consultancy. "If the Internet has demonstrated anything, it's that consumers are hungry for content, and newspapers daily generate a huge amount of content. The challenge for newspapers is not one of distribution - the Internet has solved that problem. It's one of monetization."

In March, if online readers of The Inquirer had paid two cents - an amount they would not stoop to pick up off the sidewalk - to look at a page of the Web site, that would have generated $1.2 million in revenue - $14.4 million a year..

"I think people will be willing to pay for quality journalism," Tierney said. "This idea of free access to your content is fundamentally as silly as we all thought it was 10 years ago."

If the changes of the last two decades are a guide, then it is impossible to imagine the innovations that will emerge during the next 20 years and the effect they will have on newsgathering.

In 1989, almost nobody had heard of a little invention called the Internet. Few people had computers in their homes. Cell phones were big, bulky boxes, owned by about one million people. Today 263 million Americans keep a cell phone in their pocket or purse.

That does not mean people are not thinking about what The Inquirer might look like in 2029.

Marimow envisions a news organization operating on multiple platforms, evolving to meet the changing format and delivery demands of readers while staying true to its mission - excellent journalism.

"We've got to be the maestro of multimedia," he said.

Others envision a radically different offering, a mostly online publication that gathers all sorts of Philadelphia-area information.

"Think the template of Facebook, with a mingling of the public with the intensely personal, and an aggregation of news," said Rich Hanley, director of the graduate journalism program at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn. "We will always want to know who died, who is doing what with whom, and how the government is spending our money. Human nature doesn't change, but the way it is recorded and reported will."

Harper, of Temple, said he thought the future Inquirer would include news filed by amateur journalists from across the city, in places such as Logan, Olney, or West Philadelphia, all reporting on their particular corner of the world.

"You have people writing, you have people taking photographs, commenting, taking videos," said Harper, a former foreign correspondent for Newsweek and ABC News. "We have to reinvent ourselves. And I think that's a good thing."