03/01/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If We Fly Blind, Geese Are the Least of It

PARIS - Navigating today's world is like flying an airliner in the proximity of geese. If we don't notice seemingly small realities ahead, something is certain to flock up our jets. Sully the pilot had a lifetime of training and lots of fancy instruments. We, the superpower people, have only a dwindling little band of foreign correspondents and guesswork.That is why we bumbled into Iraq, caused a half million deaths, filled terrorist ranks, and squandered trillions that hungry people everywhere could use about now. It is why savage storms and unprecedented droughts devastate food crops, threatening shortfalls too fearsome to contemplate.

For those familiar with my running screed, I sound like a broken record (a round black thing that plays music, if you've never seen one). But records are a good case in point. The music industry understands people want fast, techie delivery of new tunes. It also knows that artists who rise above inchoate cacophony need to be paid. YouTube leads us to new talent. But for an Inauguration, say, we prefer Yo-Yo Ma to some unknown citizen cellist. As times change, music executives find new ways to compensate their raw material, whether Yo-Yo Ma or the Smashing Artichokes.

However important musicians may be, we need reporters more.

Now there is intelligent life in the White House. But besides South Asia and Iraq, Barack Obama faces lots of wars, like one with France over Roquefort cheese. He needs our help.

Any democracy, let alone one that steers an unruly planet, depends on clued-in citizens to elect competent people at all levels and make sure they do the right thing. If you could do it over again, wouldn't you want to reread those pre-invasion dispatches from the few correspondents in Iraq who most people ignored? Reporters in Beijing and Brussels warned of global economic collapse but their critical mass was too meager.

We badly need newspapers worthy of the name that faithfully reflect today's world and also inspire young readers who must fashion a smarter one for tomorrow. Electrons can replace words on paper, but we still need reporters on the spot. Real news, intelligence to keep fowl out of our turbines, costs money just like food or a place to live.

The French get this. Nicolas Sarkozy is doubling state ads in newspapers, easing their taxes, and giving 18-year-olds a year's subscription to any paper they choose. Many papers have been gutted by greed or bad management. In the end, this is a market response. Too few people are willing to pay for substance.

To put things right, we should understand what went wrong.

As a kid in the 1950s, I was school reporter at the family-owned Tucson Citizen. Its urbane proprietor made money while also serving the public. Then I reported for the Arizona Daily Star, owned by a cantankerous ex-correspondent who also made money yet believed fiercely that newspapers were more than businesses. After a dark passage under Gannett, the Citizen is folding. The Star, having been owned and abandoned by the Pulitzer family of prize fame, is struggling. Tucson has grown beyond all recognition. Yet it does not have enough citizens willing to spend pennies a day to support newspapers that thrived when it was a tiny cow town.

Look anywhere, nationwide, at blood on newsroom floors and shrinking stacks at newsstands. This is beyond dangerous.

I write an occasional op-ed for the New York Times, and I must confess to some satisfaction. With all its failings, it is a very good newspaper. Online, the Times gives away brave, smart reporting from world capitals and remote sinkholes. But the real thing, which underwrites this, earns far too little on circulation and ads.

We don't have much time. The Los Angeles Times is a shadow of its former self. Big papers plan to pool coverage, blunting the competition that makes good reporters get better. The old faithful Associated Press, rather than filling the gaps left in crucial yet dark parts of the world, now focuses more on flashy scoops and sideshow coverage.

New ventures offer hope.

Some, like ProPublica, are funded by philanthropy. Though noble and useful, they are not nearly enough. On a very large planet, most big stories start small in remote places. An ambitious new online agency, GlobalPost, is a business. Its "content" is solid as stone, edited by Charles Sennott, a star correspondent who gave up on the Boston Globe.

GlobalPost provides fresh news to papers and multimedia coverage to anyone who takes the trouble to log on. It relies on ads, syndication, and a paid membership for extra features.
That is how it must be. Long-distance guesswork and travelogues are cheap enough. But for real news, we can't get what we don't pay for. It is as simple as that.

Subscribe to newspapers. That costs less than a dollar a day. Write thoughtfully to editors. If they ignore real news, cancel and tell them why. Get friends to wake up and weigh in.
If we don't start realizing soon that "the media" we moan about is only what we make of it, we had better get used to goose feathers in our teeth.