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News Blues

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I have good news and bad news. The good news is that I'm having a terrible time deciding who should win a journalism competition. The Sunshine State Awards are sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists chapters in Florida and I'm one of three judges for the James Batton Public Service Award. Public service indeed! Here are some of the outrages exposed by Florida newspapers last year:

- Enormous flaws in the juvenile justice system that all but guarantee graduation to adult felon status.

- City council members holding secret meetings in violation of state law and keeping no records as required.

- County officials jailed for using their offices to amass lucrative real estate portfolios.

- Top state officials rewarding private companies that contributed to their political campaigns.

- Murderers, wife-beaters, drug dealers and sex offenders given concealed weapons permits.

- Massive pollution of entire watersheds by developers, industry, mining interests and agriculture.

The citizens of Florida were well-served by the newspaper reporters and editors who alerted the public to the state's bad actors. It's nice to know that good journalism is still being done in places where chain ownership prevails. I'm glad that six major journalistic efforts are taxing my judgment.

The bad news is that the owners and managers of newspapers say their industry is dying. They say circulation and ad revenue are declining. They say they must offer buyouts to older and higher-paid reporters and editors, some of whom will be replaced by younger people paid less money. I know that very few young people read newspapers. I see that in my office and within my family. But I also know that newspaper chains have insisted on a 30% profit margin -- a ridiculously high figure compared with most industries. So are newspapers really dying or are they just no longer able to deliver a 30% margin to their owners? I don't know the answer to that, but I know something else. The type of reporting I'm judging for the James Batton Award is only done by newspapers -- and blogs will not replace that kind of journalism. Perhaps one day when every public document is in an online database and all public officials return our phone calls and emails, we'll be able to do our investigative reporting from home. Until that unlikely day, we need the resources of newspapers.