Newspaper reporters are the root source for most news. Veterans of the news business know that, but the public doesn’t necessarily understand where news comes from – nor are members of the public aware that the source of news is quickly eroding away.

Recent research by the Suburban Newspaper Association found that consumers thought of the Internet as their No. 1 source of news – but didn’t think that online newspapers were very important. They simply didn’t link news back to the source, the local newspapers. Instead, they attributed the source to Google, Yahoo and other Internet search engines and aggregators.

In fact, newspaper reporters have long been the prime source of on-the-scene news, whether the content comes from city councils, legislatures, courts, police news, business news, sports, or general-interest features.

The Associated Press (my former employer) historically relied heavily on its member newspapers to supply a large volume of the AP news report. Radio and television stations – while contributing some original content – have long simply re-used newspaper stories, either from the AP or simply by subscribing to the local newspaper.

Some think the Internet is taking over the news business – and it is certainly taking over the revenue associated with news and other content.

In fact, the Internet is hugely efficient at distributing news – but the World Wide Web produces very little content. A new Pew Research Center study confirms this.

A Pew study of news generation in Baltimore showed that 61 percent of original reporting came from newspapers or their websites, 28 percent from local TV stations and their websites, 7 percent from radio stations, and just 4 percent from online-only publications.

“This study does suggest that if newspapers were to disappear, what would be left to aggregate?” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew study.

The study notes: “The expanding universe of new media, including blogs, Twitter and local websites … played only a limited role: mainly an alert system and a way to disseminate stories from other places.”

Because of massive staff cuts, the Baltimore Sun’s news staff produced 72 percent fewer original stories in the first 11 months of 2009 than in the same period in 2008. “The addition of new media has not come close to making up the difference,” the Pew study said.

The Pew researchers found that an increasing numbers of press releases – often from government agencies and not vetted by reporters – were being used as the prime source of news. The study also found that many stories in both “old media” and “new media” were simply repeats or re-hashes of previous stories.

Changing technology and the current recession have combined to damage newspaper revenues – and news coverage.

Print ad sales, the main source of newspaper income, have plunged by more than 40 percent - siphoning more than $20 billion in annual revenue. Big city newspapers have been hit far harder than those in smaller markets.

Those financial pressures triggered layoffs that have collectively reduced the size of U.S. newspaper staffs by about 25 per cent since 2001, based on estimates from the American Society of News Editors. That translates into the loss of at least 14,000 newspaper reporters, editors and photographers (and as many as 20,000) in eight years.

Newspapers in recent months have attempted to better control their original news content to protect their businesses (and their news staffs). Some newspapers have reduced the amount of original news posted on their websites, and some have allowed subscriber-only access to their news content. Legal efforts have been undertaken to enforce copyright laws and prevent Internet aggregators from improperly using original content produced by newspapers.

Innovators have learned to treat their newspaper website as a completely different product than the print product. They feature content – such as video, audio, and secondary stories/photos and press releases – that couldn’t be published in print. All advertising is carried in the online edition without pay barriers. Frequent news updates posted on their websites compete with local radio and TV stations – and promote readership of the print publication.

Industry leaders, such as News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch, the AP’s Tom Curley and others, are taking steps to prevent the unauthorized use of news produced by newspaper reporters. European news associations have successfully sued to prevent Google from re-cycling news without some control or remuneration.

Thomas Jefferson once wrote: “The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

If we’re not careful, government press releases will become the prime source of news – and the search engines and blogs can duplicate them across the Internet.

(Marc Wilson, a former AP, daily newspaper reporter and weekly publisher, is general manager of TownNews.com. He is reachable at marcus@townnews.com.)