In the back of my head is the notion that if the Reader had not been founded as an alternative weekly in 1971, it should be founded as one now. Thirty-seven years ago it was offered to Chicago as an alternative to the then four dailies — and after a few rough years, while skittish advertisers and readers alike got the hang of a free newspaper, the Reader took off.

These days it would be an alternative to the Internet, which tempts newspapers with every imaginable allure but one — a profit. Skittish readers would be told that this new weekly was crammed with useful and audacious editorial matter that they could not find anyone else — certainly not online. They would be reminded of the astonishing advantage of a print publication — it’s portable! Advertisers would be told that they could again promote their wares and services in the place where they have always felt most comfortable — on the printed page, alongside the editorial matter, in ads easy to spot yet completely unintrusive. (A miracle!)

The ecologically minded public would be assured that Canada is not running out of trees.

I’ve kept this idea in the back of my head with the other detritus because crises spawn hallucinations, and the newspaper business seems to be in end-stage crisis. The company that owns the Tribune is in bankruptcy. The company that owns the Reader is in bankruptcy. We laid off a few people last week. There’s word that the Tribune will lay off far more in January.

The state of the industry was diagnosed nicely by James Surowiecki in the New Yorker last week: 

“People don’t use the [New York Times]  less than they did a decade ago. They use it more. The difference is that today they don’t have to pay for it. The real problem for newspapers, in other words, isn’t the Internet; it’s us. We want access to everything, we want it now, and we want it for free. That’s a consumer’s dream, but eventually it’s going to collide with reality: if newspapers’ profits vanish, so will their product.

“Does that mean newspapers are doomed? Not necessarily. There are many possible futures one can imagine for them, from becoming foundation-run nonprofits to relying on reader donations to that old standby the deep-pocketed patron. It’s even possible that a few papers will be able to earn enough money online to make the traditional ad-supported strategy work. But it would not be shocking if, sometime soon, there were big American cities that had no local newspaper; more important, we’re almost sure to see a sharp decline in the volume and variety of content that newspapers collectively produce. For a while now, readers have had the best of both worlds: all the benefits of the old, high-profit regime—intensive reporting, experienced editors, and so on—and the low costs of the new one. But that situation can’t last. Soon enough, we’re going to start getting what we pay for, and we may find out just how little that is.”

One of Surowiecki’s “many possible futures” that I’ve been paying attention to recently is the online model that relies on foundations, patrons, and donations. In Hot Type I wrote about a Vancouver site, And on this blog I reported some new grants to Chicago’s Chi-Town Daily News, But these are boutique operations — the $150,000 in grant money to the Chi-Town Daily News will let them double their editorial staff four 4 to 8. Online news operations of this scale aren’t going to replace the reporters that American newspapers are bringing home from Washington, let alone the ones in Beijing and Darfur.

And neither will the TriCity News of Monmouth County, New Jersey. Its an alternative weekly “focusing on the arts, culture and politics,” and its entire staff consists of three full-time and one half-time workers. But the News warranted a column by media writer David Carr in Monday’s New York Times because it’s prosperous. How? Why? “Precisely because it aggressively ignores the Web,” Carr tells us. Owner/publisher Dan Jacobson told Carr, “Why would I put anything on the Web? I don’t understand how putting content on the Web would do anything but help destroy our paper. Why should we give our readers any incentive whatsoever to not look at our content along with our advertisements, a large number of which are beautiful and cheap full-page ads?”

I asked our associate publisher, Steve Timble, what he thought of Carr’s story. “This person has found a dedicated group of individuals and he’s served their needs explicitly — that’s how you succeed,” Timble said. Those individuals are advertisers who appreciate the print environment Jacobson offers them. The News’s 10,000 readers presumably appreciate the advertisers Jacobson attracts to that environment. The lesson to Timble is that “there are numerous ways to succeed in media.”

Maybe so, but that’s theory talking, not results. The News isn’t a case study that will stand the world on its ear, and it isn’t a sign that the media world has changed a lot less than we think: Jacobson himself reads newspapers online — “I never look at the ads,” he told Carr. The example the News sets offers less to encourage editors than ad salesmen. But in the church/state divide, the ad department has become the church. Or at least the reporting rabble turn in that direction as they pray for deliverance.