Anders Gyllenhaal, executive editor of the Herald, is quick to point out that his paper still has an edge in terms of actual readers in print and online. According to the September numbers, it had 5.2 million unique web users a month. "We reach more people than we ever have in our history," Gyllenhaal says.

Still, more web readers don't necessarily translate into more money. Online ads generate just a fraction of the revenue of print ads.

"There are virtually no online news operations that are really, fully supported with ad revenue," says Edmonds.

Rochelle Gilken was one of 300 people who accepted buyouts from the Palm Beach Post.
C. Stiles
Rochelle Gilken was one of 300 people who accepted buyouts from the Palm Beach Post.
After a 30-year career in newspapers, Tom Dubocq is now a private investigator.
C. Stiles
After a 30-year career in newspapers, Tom Dubocq is now a private investigator.

Newspapers are struggling to cope with the massive shift in the way people get their news. Since 1992, the proportion of Americans who say they read a newspaper regularly (in print or online) has fallen from 71 percent to 46 percent, according to a 2008 survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Meanwhile, the percentage of people watching cable-TV news has continued to rise — 39 percent of the public was watching last year, according to the Pew survey.

Then, of course, there are those who prefer to get their news online. A December 2008 Pew survey found that a whopping 40 percent of Americans said they got most of their national and international news online. However, a 2009 report by Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism points out that "virtually all of the most popular news websites are those associated with traditional news organizations... or are aggregators, which collect content from traditional newsrooms and wire services rather than produce their own." In other words, traditional journalists are still producing the news people seek on the web.

As for why families stopped bringing the paper to their breakfast table, some say it's the quality of the news being delivered.

Since the '90s, publicly owned media companies have been cutting their newsroom budgets to preserve high profit margins on Wall Street. This tactic hit investigative reporters especially hard, since they earn higher salaries and write stories that take longer to produce. But without good muckrakers on staff, the quality of reporting went down and drove away customers, says Eleanor Farnen, president of the media consulting firm Strategists LLC and a PhD candidate at the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

"If you're going to protect your brand in the newspaper business, you have to protect your content," she says. "The people in the newsroom, they keep the content alive."

Still, a lack of investigative journalism doesn't explain why USA Today, until this year, had the highest circulation of any paper in the country. Its short, simple news stories and fluffy celebrity pieces could hardly be considered hard-hitting journalism.

Perhaps there's a simpler explanation for the death of the fish wrapper. If people can hear about the latest murder trial online or on TV, they don't need to read a summary in the next day's paper. "If it doesn't surprise you," Dubocq says, "nobody's gonna buy it."

In 2006, Rose asked Dubocq to start digging into rumors about corruption on the Palm Beach County Commission. Dubocq combed through then-Commission Chairman Tony Masilotti's divorce files and land records, piecing together a panorama of questionable deals and missing money. Every day, his discoveries got more alarming.

"Have I told you how good I am today?" he'd ask Rose. "Let me tell you what I found today."

Before his first story on Masilotti broke, Dubocq called an old friend, John Kastrenakes, then an assistant U.S. attorney in West Palm. "Hey, Johnny," Dubocq remembers saying. "Take a look at the paper on Sunday."

The story explained how Masilotti used a secret land trust to make $1.3 million off the South Florida Water Management District's purchase of 3,000 acres of land in Martin County. Dozens of follow-up articles chronicled more land deals that netted $10 million for Masilotti, while then-County Commissioner Warren Newell also raked in about $500,000 by voting for deals that benefited him — including the water district's $190 million purchase of rock pits in western Palm Beach County.

Soon, the federal prosecutor indicted Masilotti and Newell on corruption charges, along with prominent lobbyist William Boose III and real estate consultant Daniel Miteff, who were involved in some of the tainted deals. All four landed in federal prison.

Dubocq kept writing, winning national recognition for his investigation. In June 2008, he was still detailing the widening federal probe surrounding the County Commission's plans for a new convention center hotel.

Two months later, he was gone.

At age 55, with a salary approaching six figures, Dubocq could see it was best to retire. Investigative reporting jobs were being axed all over the country, and he wasn't willing to find out whether his was next. His buyout package from the Post included health insurance — a perk he wouldn't get if he waited for a layoff — and eight months' pay. It was a generous sendoff, especially considering what happened after he left.

Suddenly, South Florida newsrooms became the kind of offices that journalists normally ridiculed in print: corporate and obtuse, with a layer of fear and dread hanging over them like smog.

At the Palm Beach Post, managers were shifted and reporters taken off beats they had covered for years, spurring resentment, confusion, and inconsistent coverage. Thanks to a series of newsroom "re-orgs," some reporters were drowning in work while others wasted hours reading magazines and applying to grad school. The south Palm Beach County bureau was reduced to a ghostly room full of empty cubicles where a few stray reporters tried not to think about how long the lights would stay on.

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