As U.S. newspapers travelled deeper into misery this year, journalists were worried not only about their jobs, but also about who will hold government accountable if print media vanish.

They worry about the fate of the century-old U.S. watchdog tradition of newspapers that boosted nationwide newsroom employment to a peak of 60,000 by 1992.

Newspapers, once among the most profitable U.S. businesses, lost advertisers to television in the 1980s, focused singularly on profits in the 1990s by cutting back staff, and lost another round of advertisers to the internet in the first decade this century. By 2009, editorial employment numbers had dropped back to 40,000 — the same level as 1971.

But now, many of those out-of-work journalists are back, using the very instrument blamed for destroying their jobs — the Internet — to eke out a living with their reporting skills.

Fern Shen, 53, who took a buyout from the Washington Post in 2007, is a case in point. A long-time resident of nearby Baltimore, she has turned her Baltimore Brew blog into a must-read site for anyone involved in the Maryland port city’s affairs.

Like many online, she’s still figuring out the business side.

“It’s not really in my reporter’s DNA to think about this stuff,” she said in an interview.

But she’s attracted at least one local advertiser keen on tapping into her select demographics, and once she creates an ad-rate sheet, she expects to sell more. “People are now coming to me and saying, ’How do I advertise on your site?’” she said.

Welcome to the pioneering world of online journalism.

But Ms. Shen also concedes that she could hardly support herself at the current level for long, a sobering reality about the fate of credible, unbiased journalism.

If journalists lose the sort of muscular, moneyed backing of the nation’s newspapers, who will be able to carry on? Who will investigate the Love Canals of the world — that 1976 revelation by the tiny Niagara Gazette about a New York state community living atop a toxic dumping ground? The work put environmental pollution on the national agenda.

Who will uncover corruption that reaches into the White House, as did the Washington Post when it brought down president Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal? These questions are more insistent as the newspaper industry closes another disastrous year. Daily circulation dropped 10 per cent over 2008, which itself was a disastrous year, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation that tracks 379 newspaper.

That is fewer papers than last year, as 2009 saw the closure of major newspapers in Seattle and Denver. Even the granddaddy of all industry trade magazines — the 125-year-old Editor & Publisher was shut down this month.

At the Los Angeles Times, editorial staff is down to about 600, little more than half its high of 1,100. The Baltimore Sun has shrunk from 400 to 150. The New York Times, still the largest newsroom staff with 1,250 people, cut 100 jobs this year and the same amount last year.

The blame-laying is loud, with many publishers bemoaning the offering of news free online. Among major papers, only the Wall Street Journal and London Financial Times charge for internet access.

But there’s a proverb about making lemonade when you have lemons.

Former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie and Columbia Journalism School professor Michael Schudson call the crisis a “transformational moment,” which must be seized to help assure “that the essential elements of independent, original and credible news reporting are preserved.” In a recent edition of The Columbia Journalism Review, they noted how the definition of news has expanded to include participation by ordinary citizens: Twitter, Facebook and the citizen cell phone reporting from Iran’s recent elections.

They note the road to survival of credible journalism is collaboration with erstwhile rivals, online journalism funded by philanthropists and expansion of already-established journalism school news services.

Groups of rival newspapers in Ohio and Florida now collaborate to provide state capital coverage and swap other stories, and are considering dropping wire services like the Associated Press.

In San Diego, California, as the Union-Tribune newspaper halved its staff, three new community news sources popped up: the online non-profit Voice of San Diego, the for-profit San Diego News Network and the Watchdog Institute, an investigative reporting project based at San Diego State University.

On the national scene, ProPublica, a non-profit newsroom funded by a foundation, has led the way producing investigative journalism, tracking things like how the $747-billion economic stimulus money is being spent. Some of the work has even appeared in major newspapers, sometimes as a collaborative byline.