An old friend from my newspaper days emailed over the weekend to say she’s headed for the door at her paper, forced out in an early retirement package to reduce personnel and costs.

Her email is one of a dozen I’ve received in recent weeks from former colleagues put on the street by cutbacks or closings of their newspapers. Last week, a Hollins University student I’ve been mentoring for a photojournalism career decided to change her major. She’s afraid she won’t be able get a job on a newspaper when she graduates.

I was 12 years old when I decided I wanted to be a newpaperman. It’s all I ever wanted to do. I tried other things but none ever matched the joy of working for a publication produced daily or weekly on processed wood pulp. One of the greatest pleasures to come out of a return to Floyd County after 40 years was a chance to write and shoot photos, once again, for a newspaper.

Newspapers served this country long before I was born. I never believed I would outlive the business. Now it seems I might.

Over 100 newspapers in this country closed outright or ceased print publications in the last six month. Closures are expected to increase in the coming year.  Many are in Chapter 11 bankruptcy or close to it.  Many dailies are cutting back on the days they print.

The Roanoke Times trimmed its work force in 2007, forcing early retirement on many veterans who provided much of the depth and institutional knowledge of the paper. One of their newest reporters told me two weeks ago she had to get directions on how to find Floyd. All employees of the paper will take a forced week off without pay this year to cut expenses. Most fear more cuts are coming.

Writes Heath Haussamen in The New Mexico Independent:

Newspapers are currently in as bad a spot as the ailing American automotive industry that is about to get a big, taxpayer-funded bailout. I believe many newspapers are going to shut their doors for good during this economic downturn, crippling watchdog journalism in some communities. The biggest threat is in smaller towns, where big-city corporations that have snatched up little papers for years to try to boost profits are likely to, in some cases, give up on those endeavors.

Such towns usually have one daily newspaper and draw less attention from television and Internet journalists than larger cities. Towns of thousands or tens of thousands of people could literally be left without a reliable journalistic source of information about their local government and other news when their daily newspaper stops publishing. At best, they might be left with an alternative weekly.

Which raises the question: When the last newspaper closes its doors, who will be there to report the story?