Here is a fact I came across the other day that will surprise just about nobody: newspaper staffing levels are at their lowest levels in more than 30 years.
According to a survey by the American Society of News Editors, there were about 2,600 fewer full-time professional editorial jobs at newspapers last year - a 6.4 percent drop from 2011. That means there are now roughly 38,000 full-time professional newspaper journalists nationwide. It's the first time that figure has gone below 40,000 since the survey began in 1978.
There are some caveats about the survey, including the fact that a number of large papers didn't participate. There were also issues with the way some staffers were counted.
Nonetheless the survey paints a gloomy picture, especially given the staffing bloodbaths of a few years back. As I've said before, newspapers aren't about to disappear anytime soon, but given the massive layoffs of recent years it's clear many can't do the same kind of work they could a decade ago.
Many readers at this point might be forgiven for letting out a collective yawn. After all, you may be saying, newspapers are a thing of the past. Digital news is where it's at, whether it's on a computer or a smartphone.
That kind of thinking is bound to be bolstered by studies like one done recently by Oxford University, which found that online sites beat newspapers as the preferred news source for every age group - including the over-55 set.
But that's a false dichotomy, because a sizable chunk of news websites, including some of the most popular ones around, are either run by newspapers (The New York Times, The Guardian), or aggregate (some would say steal) much of their content from newspaper sites (Huffington Post).
So when reporters and editors are laid off, it's not just the paper that suffers; it's that paper's website as well.
Some might argue that alternatives to newspapers have sprung up around the country, and that's certainly true. Non-profit news outlets, hyperlocal and citizen journalism - all have, in one form or another, attempted to fill the void left by the weakening of newspapers.
But despite the high hopes many had for such ventures, few would argue that they've entirely succeeded. Many hyperlocal news sites have failed or are failing. Non-profit news is in search of a sustainable business model. And it now seems clear that citizen journalism could never really substitute for the work of professionals.
Over and over again, I've argued on this site that newspapers are still important and even vital to the fabric of our society - not because I'm in love with print per se, but because only newspapers, by and large, have the staffing levels and expertise to cover news in the comprehensive way it should be covered, especially at the local level.
If you think I'm wrong, tell me what the alternative is. Who covers your community with the same depth as your local paper? As a kind of thought experiment, let's run down the list:
• Local TV news. If your local network affiliate is anything like mine, a typical local newscast features little more then crime, sports and weather. If you want anything more than that, you're out of luck.
• Hyperlocal sites like Patch.com. I applauded AOL's attempt at hyperlocal journalism on a nationwide scale, but Patch.com bureaus - if they can even be called that - simply don't have the staffing levels to do much more than patchwork coverage, excuse the pun. And in any case Patch.com as an entity now appears to be in financial distress.
• Citizen journalism. If someone can name a citizen journalism site that really serves as a substitute for the local paper, I'm all ears.
• Non-profit news sites. There are some very good non-profit sites around the country, including ones like Voice of San Diego, which I've written about. But as noted earlier, funding is still an issue for many of these sites and so they remain something of a hit-or-miss proposition.
The moral of this story? Even if you get your news online, chances are good it's coming from a newspaper. So when newspaper newsrooms are gutted, we're all the poorer for it.