The future of newspapers? Asking the past:

The latest breakfast thrown by the Newhouse School at Syracuse University and The New Yorker asked about the future of newspapers and sought answers from Gary Pruitt, head of McClatchy, and Dean Baquet, former editor of the LA Times and now head of the DC bureau for the NY Times. How could I resist? Here’s live-to-tape blogging posted soon after the event:

Ken Auletta: “The past decade has not been kind to newspapers.” He introduces Pruitt, saying that last year he was venerated for buying papers and “this year he’s less venerated” for selling them. And then he asks Pruitt whether, if he were the owner of the Tribune Company, he would have fired Baquet. Pruitt equivocates. “I would like to believe we would have never gotten to that point.” He hopes that the publisher and the editor can work together. They didn’t hug.

Baquet says he’s not opposed to cutting in newspapers. “I’m a realist.” He says that by the time he had his confrontation with Tribune they’d already cut 25 percent of the staff and killed two sections. He thinks he already proved he’s a “team player.” Note that the talk so far is about the internal organization. That’s how newspapers think and talk.

Pruitt: “Fortunately I’m not at the Tribune company. They’re still waiting for Godot. And apparently Sam Zell is Godot.”

Baquet says his biggest problem at Tribune was that “panic had set in… There was a lack of rational conversation about the future. There was a lack of intelligent discourse about what newspapers have to offer that no one else has to offer…. You couldn’t say. ‘What can we do that our new competitors can’t do?’… My biggest fear that there’s this panic and that the panic isn’t justified. I buy that the industry is changing… But nobody’s talking about the good stuff.” He cites newspaper readership, including online, at a high. He says the panic is stopping the conversation about “how to protect these institutions.” Again, note, the focus is on the institution as an institution. I think it’s a looser world than that; I think it’s more about networks and confederations.

Pruitt agrees that there is a sense of panic. He says you look at the figures and “the inevitable conclusion is that newspapers are dead.” He says the “saving grace for newspapers is that they are not proliferating in number.” He brags that their lead over the next outlet, usually a TV station, has grown. That’s like being one deck up on the Titanic; you seem to be sinking slower. He brags newspapers are the “last mass medium,” not something I’m sure is worth boasting about. So what he’s saying is that newspapers are still monopolies. Well, as newspapers, they are; no one wants to start another one. In news, though, that monopoly is what has died. Dead and buried. Gone. Over.

Auletta asks about Tribune losing its lead in digital innovation (they were an early investor in AOL). Baquet says that he doesn’t want to engage in “Tribune bashing” and that “everybody moved to slow” in the industry as circulation declined and technology rose. He says that newsrooms were guilty of that. “Like every reporter and editor, it felt like something that I didn’t understand and something that would slow me down” from journalism. “And I was wrong.” The more I hear him, the more I do understand why staffs like him.

Baquet says that if were a multibillionnaire, he would take on Tribune Company. “I cannot imagine there is not a great future for those papers.” He says he hopes that people who invest in newspapers don’t look for quarterly returns and growth “because that’s just not going to happen now.” He says he hopes people want to own newspapers because their long-term growth prospects are good “and there’s another reason to own it, because they do something terrific.”

After Pruitt, too, gives a soliloquy to the prospects of newspapers, Auletta says that’s fine but young people are not reading newspapers. Baquet says they will care about news when they’re older. I say they care about news today, just not in the form in which it is controlled and served by newspapers.

Baquet says that if he ran a media magazine, he’d assign a reporter to do a story on how much of the spiraling decline of newspapers was “as a result of self-inflicted wounds.” He says that “the money that went into real innovation… is all gone.” He defines innovation as starting new sections online. He says some of the loss of circulation is “because we give people less.”

Pruitt says that he’s confident at their ability to build audiences but his concern is whether there is a business model that has advertising supporting journalism. I think the question is first how the journalism is done; there are new was that bring new business models. This discussion does, indeed, go hand-in-hand.

But mind you, here’s the head of the third-largest newspaper company who just gambled his company’s fortune on getting deeper into newspapers admitting that he doesn’t know what the business model is. I find that troubling.

Pruitt says that McClatchy bought Knight Ridder at the start of the newspaper downturn (uh, I’d say that began long ago; it just accelerated like an SOB lately) and “so our timing was terrible.” He says the company still performed better than it would have without Knight Ridder.

Baquet offers an eloquent tribute to the long-term public-service and business wisdom of the Newhouses — Si is here — supporting the Times-Picayune even as the business life of the city collapsed.

Note again how they continue to talk about newspapers as institutions and less about the larger landscape of news and their possible role in it.

It’s question time and so I get the mic, of course, and say that I’m about to fly to the University of Texas to give a spiel on why I’m an optimist about journalism — journalism and news, that is. I want to know why they are but first tell them why I am: because there are more ways than ever to gather and share news and if we cooperate with the public, journalism can spreader deeper into the tentacles of society, taking the light of openness with it. Their responses:

Pruitt: He says he’s optimistic because there is a growing “hunger and thirst for knowledge.” He says “there are more ways to get out to people and engage them in Web 2.0…. It’s in many ways a golden age of journalism.” But he still turns around: “The dark clou, at least for many media companies, is divining the business model to support the journalistic efforts. I’m optimistic about that as well but ti actually regard it as two different issues.” Again, I say they must be intertwined.

Baquet: “I’m optimistic first because more people read us…. I’m opt also because I think that newspapers get better when they have to change as long as they do it rationally…. This is not something we’ve not done before.” He says the transformation of the NY Times from a stodgy two-section paper came at the last industry crisis. “Newspapers get better as they change so long as they hold onto their bedrock principles.”

He says that the web brings “amazing possibilities for writing and storytelling.” If he were a critic starting out, he’d be excited about the ability to not just describe but to show a dance. “I think all that’s exciting. It’s a great opportunity for journalists if we embrace it, which I think we are.”

He adds: “The newspapers that survive what we’re going to go through are going to be considerably better, more innovative.”

Victor Navasky, now of the Columbia Journalism Review, says that “where journalism is subordinate to the state, the news gets distorted for political reasons, and when journalism is subordinate to the market, news gets distorted for economic reasons.” And so he asks about nonprofit: “the third sector as a business model for journalism.”

Pruitt says that “holds a lot of promise. I certainly support the idea of looking more broadly for different models… The more diversity out there the better.” But he says the best insurance for independence and quality is success in the marketplace. I agree.

David Lieberman of USA Today asks the O question: the future of objectivity. Baquet says that “I’m not sure objectivity is possible anyway, I like ‘balance’ better. And i think there are times when the concept of objectivity can make newspaper writing stilted… The explosion of the web is going to demand that newspapers be even more balanced… The explosion of the web, if you take newspaper web sites out of it, is really an explosion of opinion…. There’s going to be a desire for a voice that’s as straight as possible. Does that mean that newspapers should not call it as they see it?…. ”

Pruitt says the internet not so much an explosion of opinion but an explosion of porn. I think he meant it as a punch line.

He says that if newspapers go with “the more modern style” they are going to lose market. “People are looking for a once-a-day stop that is professionally selected and edited…. I think we would lose audience if we abandoned that.”

If I owned McClatchy stock, I’d be picking up the phone right now.

Asked about the guest editing kerfuffle at the LA Times, Baquet says he gets the value, the idea of guest editing for “the opinion side of newspapers is the most threatened.” So that side “is the most drawn to that kind of stuff.” But he says he wouldn’t have done it because it will draw controversy and you don’t know what baggage the person who comes into the section would bring. Lloyd Grove, ex of the NY Daily News and now, by his description, “freelancer,” asks Baquet about the impact of this morality play at the paper. Baquet says that he hasn’t followed it much because, three weeks into his new job, he’s trying not to focus on the last place.

“Overall, the morale of the LA Times is in the tank,” Baquet says. “I like the new editor of the LA Times, he’s a friend. He’s in a very difficult position…. They’re waiting for the sale. They know, given what happened with me, that there’s some cuts of some size headed their way, rolling down the hill. And then if you throw in the e angst that exists in newspapers it’s a tumultuous time at the newspaper…. It’s a paper that’s struggling through an amazingly tumultuous time and this is symptomatic of it.”