I can barely imagine what the cultural life and political life of this country would become without the New York Times. But it’s an idea that Michael Hirschorn, writing in the Atlantic, says we’d better get used to. He says the New York Times Company is looking at over $1 billion in debt and a mere $46 million or so in cash reserves, and the flagship paper is saddled with the sinking readership and advertising endemic to the industry. Hirschorn can imagine the print edition of the Times disappearing as early as May.

Online, the paper presumably would continue, but vastly diminished: “Common estimates suggest that a Web-driven product could support only 20 percent of the current staff; such a drop in personnel would (in the short run) devastate The Times’ news-gathering capacity.” 

The article’s gloomy all right — but it could be even gloomier. Hirschorn thinks a strictly online version of the Times might turn into something impressive: “In an optimistic scenario, the remaining reporters—now reporters-cum-bloggers, in many cases—could use their considerable savvy to mix their own reporting with that of others, giving us a more integrative, real-time view of the world unencumbered by the inefficiencies of the traditional journalistic form. Times readers might actually end up getting more exposure than they currently do to reporting resources scattered around the globe, and to areas and issues that are difficult to cover in a general-interest publication…

“In this scenario, nytimes.com would begin to resemble a bigger, better, and less partisan version of the Huffington Post, which, until someone smarter or more deep-pocketed comes along, is the prototype for the future of journalism: a healthy dose of aggregation, a wide range of contributors, and a growing offering of original reporting.”

Needless to say, it’s not only the Times whose fate should keep us awake at night. Hirschorn cites a December prediction from the Fitch Ratings service (registration needed) predicting that “several cities could go without a daily print newspaper by 2010.”

But speaking of the Times, here’s a blog post by digital media analyst Ken Doctor defending the page-one ads that paper just introduced. Doctor says each ad will reportedly bring the Times some $75,000 to $100,000 in revenue — “That’s good money; figure each ad can help pay most of the freight for the care and feeding of one reporter.”