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How to bring the best of paid journalism into an environment where no one is getting paid?

In recent years, there's been a lot of talk about how paid journalists will be put out of business by bloggers and other online sources. But at least one group of people isn't buying it: the bloggers themselves.

"I don't have high hopes for bloggers adapting to the role of mainstream journalism," says Bram Reichbaum, who writes the Pittsburgh Comet (pghcomet.blogspot.com).

"I don't think blogs will ever replace professional journalism," agrees Matt Hogue of the Pittsburgh Hoagie (matth614.blogspot.com). "Most people I know don't read blogs. It's a small community."

And these are two bloggers who've had success playing the mainstream media's game. Last year, Reichbaum's blog revealed close ties between a billboard company and a since-departed city official. Hogue recently broke allegations made by a city council candidate, Anthony Coghill, about improprieties in the Democratic Party endorsement process.

Bloggers do have gripes with professional journalism. Reichbaum, for one, thinks reporters are too complacent: "When a candidate says something, why isn't that news?" he asks. Among professional journos, "There's a tendency to say, 'Oh, you hear that every election.' But it's not your job to decide that."

Of course, there are agendas and then there are agendas.

Reichbaum, for example, volunteers for city council candidate Georgia Blotzer; Hogue became Coghill's campaign manager shortly after posting the candidate's allegations. And Hogue, who backs Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, recently touched off an online debate by posting video accusing Ravenstahl's challenger, Patrick Dowd, of flip-flopping. Other bloggers began speculating about who created the video, and whether Hogue was shilling for Ravenstahl's campaign. (Hogue stresses "I'm my own person," rather than the mayor's mouthpiece. But he admits creating the video "wasn't just me. That's all I'm saying.")

Still, it seems unfair to fault bloggers for having agendas: What other incentive would they have for writing? As Hogue notes, "I'm not a paid journalist."

Hence the conundrum: How to bring the best of paid journalism -- diligent and dispassionate news coverage -- into an online environment where no one is getting paid?

Reichbaum predicts that "dissatisfied people from the MSM [mainstream media] are going to partner with ambitious people in the blogging world." Together, he says, they could create a journalistic hybrid, with newsroom resources and blogger attitude.

But where will the money come from?

In some cities, local foundations have sponsored independent media enterprises, but there's little sign of that here. Doug Root, a spokesman for the Heinz Endowments, says foundations are painfully aware of the problems besetting the media, in part because "We rely on newspapers especially to help get our message out." But there's little talk about creating alternate media platforms here, he says. This despite the fact that Sen. John Kerry -- the husband of benefactor Theresa Heinz Kerry -- is holding Congressional hearings about the fate of newspapers.

So for now, bloggers are doing whatever they want, while traditional media is doing whatever it can. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette especially is investing in the Web, offering multimedia features and retaining a former blogger, Chad Hermann, to provide online commentary.

Such efforts are even more notable because of Pittsburgh's aging population, as P-G lifestyle editor Virginia Linn made clear during an April 15 forum at Penn State's New Kensington campus. (I also took part in the discussion.) On the one hand, Linn said, having an elderly population helps secure a subscriber base, because older people are more likely to read newspapers. Then again, older readers sometimes resent online initiatives. Any time the P-G directs people towards its Web site, Linn said, a flurry of older readers call in to object.

But Pittsburgh media has another edge, notes Mike Madison, a University of Pittsburgh law professor whose own Web site (pittsblog.blogspot.com) frequently opines on the state of local media. "There's a huge expatriate community [of former Pittsburghers] that is totally interested in what's happening here," he says. That helps drive online traffic -- and in fact, the P-G Web site is among the country's busiest.

To capitalize on such opportunities, though, Madison says journalists "need to talk to the paper's businesspeople. I know the fear and loathing about breaching the wall between advertising and editorial. But journalists will have to get over it. Assuming the business people understand who is reading the paper in print and online, they have to go to the editorial side and figure out how to allocate resources."

Which sounds great -- until you hear Virginia Linn say that one of the P-G's most heavily read stories online was about the Obama family's new dog. If Web-tracking dictates coverage, won't we just get fluff and Steelers coverage? "How much worse would that be than what's happening now?" Madison asks. "I mean no disrespect, but the P-G is vastly less useful as a civic resource than it could be, given the talent they have."

But it needn't be that way, Madison says. "We're a big, robust society. There are people who care enough to demand the news -- and to produce it." If local papers can't do the job, others will. Madison's site has, in fact, plugged efforts to enhance online citizen journalism.

At some point, though, if we want a reliable flow of information, doesn't someone have to get paid to provide it?

Sure, Madison says. "But it's not necessarily the person covering city council. Maybe it's the publisher." Writers and other creative types "get paid in all kinds of ways -- sometimes by getting recognition, or just doing the right thing." Reichbaum, he notes, "puts a lot of energy into his site, and he's not making any money."

That's true, Reichbaum says. But that's one reason why "my résumés will be going out" after the May primary.

Does he hope to find work on other campaigns?

"The political realm would be my second choice," he says. "I'd really like to pitch myself to media."

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