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The essence of good news

Quality journalism, whether on paper or online, is a binding force that informs and engages us.

GABI CAMPANARIO / Seattle TimesRead more

Gene Foreman managed The Inquirer newsroom from 1973 to 1998; he taught journalism for 17 semesters as the Larry and Ellen Foster Professor at Pennsylvania State University, and his textbook, "The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Pursuit of News," will be published in September.

At City Hall on May 6, the mayor and the City Council president declared their intent to regain the public's trust in the city's tax system by reforming or abolishing the agency that sets property values for tax purposes.

Elsewhere in the halls of government that day, a deputy mayor said the city would reverse course and allow designers more time to make an aesthetic statement when the new South Street Bridge for automobiles and pedestrians is built across the Schuylkill.

What those two events have in common is that they reflect the influence of a newspaper on civic life.

Mayor Nutter and Council President Anna C. Verna acknowledged a series of stunning articles in The Inquirer showing incompetence and political influence in the Board of Revision of Taxes. "The issues that have been raised in recent news accounts represent a culture that is unacceptable in our city government," Nutter said.

As for the bridge, The Inquirer's architecture critic, Inga Saffron, had written persuasively on Feb. 6 that the current design meant the city was about to get a South Street Bridge without "an ounce of poetry in its steel bones." She urged quick action and imagination to give Philadelphia "a dramatic gateway" to Center City and "forge a gracious pedestrian link between two dynamic neighborhoods."

Of course, investigative reporting and architectural criticism do not always produce the kind of prompt and decisive action that took place May 6. What newspapers like The Inquirer do, day in and day out, is to provide reliable information that the people can use to make governing decisions about their communities. Then it is up to the people and their elected officials to decide what to do with that information.

"Good journalism," Leonard Downie Jr. and Robert G. Kaiser wrote in their 2002 book, The News About the News, "enriches Americans by giving them both useful information for their daily lives and a sense of participation in the wider world. . . . Citizens cannot function together as a community unless they share a common body of information about their surroundings, their neighbors, their governing bodies, their sports teams, even their weather."

Those observations are especially pertinent now because turbulent changes in technology and the economy are jeopardizing the future of good metropolitan newspapers like The Inquirer. That should be of grave concern to citizens who care about their community.

Although I love newspapers and worked more than 40 years in newspaper journalism, this is not about nostalgia. How the news is delivered is less important than the quality of the news itself. It takes money - a lot of money - to finance a good news organization, whether the news is delivered in print, in broadcast, or online.

In cities and small towns across the country, most of the news is generated by newspaper staffs. Even though The Inquirer's staff today is far smaller than 20 years ago, it is still the largest news organization in the Philadelphia region.

Historically, the bulk of the cost of gathering a community's news has been paid by newspaper advertisers and, to a lesser extent, by newspaper subscribers.

The Inquirer and other newspapers - along with broadcast news organizations, although they have smaller reporting staffs - established sites for online users at the dawn of the World Wide Web. The most popular Web sites today, including so-called aggregators like Google and Yahoo, derive their news from newspaper and broadcast journalists. And practically no reporting is done by the bloggers who enjoy complaining about the news media they depend on for information.

The Web is an exciting news medium. It can deliver words and still pictures as newspapers do. It can deliver video as television stations do. It can deliver audio as radio stations do. And it can deliver all these things in an instant and on demand, while giving the audience an opportunity to interact.

Unfortunately, what the Web has not done, so far at least, has been to attract advertising dollars in a volume sufficient to support a reporting staff of the size of the typical newspaper's. Although the news on the Web may be free, it decidedly is expensive to produce.

It is quite possible that newspapers will be supplanted by news sites on the Web.

But if The Inquirer and other newspapers go away, where will you get the depth of reporting you now read in those newspapers?

Will you know about the follies of the Board of Revision of Taxes?

Will you get a South Street Bridge that is less than your city deserves?

If you are concerned about the answers to those questions, you have a stake in what happens to The Philadelphia Inquirer.