IN THE LAST days of the late great

Evening

&

Sunday Bulletin,

a one-time second-string music critic shook his head sadly, and mused: "If only they'd listened to my suggestions about music coverage . . ."

Talk about the blind men and the elephant. Some of the same kind of thinking is evident these days. It's just beginning to dawn on us that a world without newspapers is quite possible, and nobody wants to believe we're helpless to prevent it.

To newspaper freaks like me, who read at least one a day, what's happening is as unthinkable as it is inevitable, as incomprehensible as it is hopeless.

Many of us who have worked on newspapers still cling to the myth that if only we'd done things differently, the slide could have been reversed, or slowed. But we in the newsrooms have never really understood the newspaper as a business - that was always something others worried about while we merrily pursued our craft, oblivious to accounts payable.

It has little to do with the product itself. Or with the positions taken on editorial pages. Or, for that matter, with quality - no matter how much the newspaper might improve journalistically, it might not matter.

It does have a lot to do with competition from the Internet for dwindling ad dollars. And a lot to do with changing lifestyles. And the current economic crisis.

The staggering economy is indeed a factor, but it isn't the cause. Newspapers were in trouble before the economy went south. The recession (or whatever it is) has only been expediting the process.

Some of the nation's most prestigious newspapers have already folded. Others are trying to find buyers, but this is increasingly unlikely as earlier purchasers sink more deeply in debt, some (like the company that publishes the Daily News and Inquirer) filing for bankruptcy.

It's been suggested that foundations or even government entities invest in newspapers, but times are tough for them, too. And even if it didn't compromise newspaper independence, it would certainly appear to.

Would a newspaper feel free to investigate the people who helped it out? In San Diego, the new owners received a big loan from the local police union, which then demanded that the newspaper's editorial writers be fired because they were too critical of public officials.

Newspapers are trying to cope by strengthening their Web sites, but even if that's a success, it won't save the newspaper as we know it. Perhaps nothing will.

I'm the first to concede that the newspaper is a flawed product, but nothing else can take its place. No other medium has comparable resources in personnel, skills and motivation. TV news would be lost without newspapers. Bloggers, too, would lose their major source of news to comment on.

VERY SPECIFIC skills are involved in newspaper journalism.

Gathering information requires knowledge of where to find out what you're looking for and how to ferret it out. Interviewing is an art form, which fewer and fewer TV reporters are adept at (just look at the average local newscast). Determining the most significant items in a document or a speech takes patience and experience.

How does this affect you? Without the continuous content initiated by the newspaper, you'd be deprived of the reasonably accurate information you need to be a responsible citizen, parent, shopper, student, voter and neighbor. It can't be met by other media.

So what's happening to newspapers today is a crisis not only for the dwindling number of professionals in what's left of the industry, but for you, too. *

Don Harrison was a Philadelphia-area newspaper writer and editor for 60 years, almost 20 of them at the Daily News.