IN the house I grew up in, there were always two newspapers: they sat on the arm of the sofa, waiting to be picked up and whistled over and argued with, and for us they captured the world of other people.

They were the Huddersfield Daily Examiner and the Sunday People, papers my mum and dad still read. We weren't a broadsheet type of family. I suppose we were a little proud of that fact, in the way that northern English families tend to be proud of who they are (and who they aren't). At about 13, I had a paper round and that gave me a more tangible reason for hating posh papers: they were much heavier, adding something vengeful to my Sunday morning hike.

When I came to university here in Glasgow, I fell in love with newspapers. This is a country built on many proud industries, some of which were in deep decline when first I walked across the city, passing closed factories and the shipyards' frozen cranes. But the newspaper industry was lively. The Herald building sat in art deco splendour down in Albion Street; the Daily Record rose like a red-top colossus over the M8; and the Sunday Times plant sprang up in Kinning Park. I grew to love what the best kind of journalism could do for a nation: the possibility of truth being sought and valued, of power being held to account, became a central plank of what animated my sense of what life could be.

For me, it was also a building block of art. I loved the idea that, while I walked and talked and learned who I was, while I grew and even while I slept, great journalists were busy establishing the first draft of history. I believed then, as I do now, that journalism – in all its forms, both entertaining and enlightening, but especially the investigative and analytical kind – is a fundamental element of any good and thriving democracy.

So that's the context for dismay. That's the context for alarm. The crisis in journalism has crept over us like a mysterious Old Testament fog: we used to have rules and commandments – We Shall Not Lie, We Shall Not Sell Out, We Shall Not Simplify, We Shall Not Corrupt – but the pressure on newspaper profitability appeared to make the industry sick. The commercial panic, the willingness to do anything and print anything and hack anything in the attempt to succeed, led – we now see – to illegality on a grand scale. The papers always had bias: we bought them for their bias, and we liked it when they reflected a world-view we could share. Although we read tabloids in our house it wasn't because they were valueless: they were campaigning papers, and they made us better, actually. Even what seemed like excessive tabloid moments – "Gotcha!" when a battleship is sunk and more than 300 Argentinians lose their lives; or "If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights", which smacked, even to a Yorkshireman, of an ominous new public relations tone arriving in British public life.

The papers held people to account. They held ministers, policemen and commercial companies to account. They caught thieves and cornered criminals, long before they were considered thieves and criminals themselves. But a situation developed where those papers, and many others, were no longer speaking truth to power. They were owned by people, the Rupert Murdochs of the world, who were arguably more powerful than the governments that gave them their licences. There was a power shift. It was easier to hold governments accountable than it was to hold the press accountable. We all knew that the industry could crack under such commercial and ethical pressure.

THEN it did crack, and none of us can take any pleasure in it. I knew there was something wrong the very moment I heard Alastair Campbell say that Rupert Murdoch was like the 24th member of the Blair cabinet. They were all struggling to work out how to please him. But, whether one points to Murdoch or the Daily Mail or the complacency of the Guardian or the timidity of the BBC, it was clear: the higher aspirations of British journalism were under attack from within, and we were left to wonder what it would mean for our society.

But I take it back to the industry itself – to the newspaper as a habit of civilisation, to the art of journalism itself. To the papers I grew up with. What were those newspapers and what happened to them? What has been lost and what can be saved?

Vicky Featherstone, my friend and artistic director at the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS), has always spoken to me about the glory and the vulnerability of the press. We both happen to be close to some very talented and well-respected journalists. It struck us at the end of last year that there was a collective sense of shame within the journalistic community, that the profession had been irrevocably damaged. And we began to ask: "Are we seeing the dying days of the newspaper industry?"

It isn't our job to provide answers to every question, but it is perhaps our job to ask them, and to put our curiosity into action. That is the kind of directors we set out to be, and that is the kind of company Vicky wished to head up when she agreed to run the NTS. Ironically, we had learned from great journalists how to keep asking what we felt to be the needful question. For a whole generation, British journalism's condition is as urgent as oxygen.

Like so many subjects we have explored for NTS productions, Enquirer began with a great fascination with the process, a deep involvement in the research. We believed audiences would be hungry to hear the opinions and experiences of actual journalists, their histories and anecdotes, their hopes and fears. We quickly agreed on how to do it. Make journalists themselves speak as opposed to us creating a fictional newspaper story. It didn't feel like there were that many outlets for those opinions to be expressed, as the last thing a newspaper wants to write about is the fact that the newspaper industry is in crisis. But that was changing.

We were excited by the idea of commissioning journalists to go and interview other journalists and to create a record of those conversations. We had a sneaking suspicion, from our experience with projects such as Black Watch – also based on interviews – that drama often lies in those moments when people speak without thinking about "drama" or "interview" or "history" or "truth". We purposefully didn't give the interviewers a strict brief. It's always in the accidents that drama happens.

We asked journalists Paul Flynn, Deborah Orr and Ruth Wishart to each interview 15 people from within the newspaper industry, from tabloid reporters to broadsheet editors and everyone in between, including journalists who work in digital media. They started interviewing in the middle of last February and by the time we started rehearsals, we had more than 40 hours of recordings. Vicky Featherstone, co-editor Andrew O'Hagan, associate director Davey Anderson, assistant director Deborah Hannan and I listened to all the interviews. We read the transcripts and began to hear something quite extraordinary. Each of these supposedly outspoken people was saying something very personal, and saying it for the first time. We were knocked out by it: we studied the tapes and transcripts and saw a changing industry speaking to itself in clear voices.

Every word spoken in Enquirer has come from those interviews: this is journalists on journalism. Instead of fictionalising their experiences or their words, we are finding theatrical ways to use the exact words and give them life. It's a process of editing, arranging and structuring that text to find the best way to tell the story. Many theatre-makers instinctively feel a kinship with the notion that great journalism will "speak truth to power". Newspapers have always been a real part of the culture of theatre. And for us that's important.

It was the Herald newspaper that sparked Vicky's idea to get playwright Gregory Burke and I to create Black Watch. She read two stories about the Black Watch: one about its amalgamation into the Scottish regiment, another about three soldiers and their Iraqi translator, who were blown up by a suicide bomber.

The NTS production of The Missing has its roots in a book by Andrew O'Hagan, which in turn was inspired by his journalistic exploration of the Fred and Rosemary West case for the London Review Of Books. Now The London Review Of Books has entered into partnership with us in producing Enquirer.

As a company, the NTS is interested in the role played by news in shaping the drama of our lives. I feel close to people who work that way. We will always try to create something visceral and emotional for a theatre audience to connect with.

For this production, a large office space in The Hub media centre at Glasgow's Pacific Quay is being converted into a performance space with the trappings of a newspaper office. It's amazing down there. Spectacular. The building overlooks the Clyde and will give the audience a real sense of time and place. I don't mind telling you that I have a natural and I hope positive bias towards the pressure that reality can bring to bear on fictional worlds. Sometimes, as with Enquirer, the reality of the material finds a match in the environment where it will be spoken. Glasgow is a character in this piece: on all sides, it wraps itself around the long glass office where Enquirer unfolds for the audience. They see, as the light goes down, a city that has known the glory and the price of reality. And I love that.

Outside the windows there is the Finnieston crane, BBC Scotland's headquarters, the Daily Record building and the Harland and Wolff shipyard behind us. The whole environment of this production is steeped in the very grammar of loss. That is theatre as I understand it.

And below us, beneath the audience's feet, there are layers of new media offices. We stand on top of the future, with digitalisation supplanting the old newspaper industry, and we give voice to it, while looking at a modern city alive with its own veracity. New technology comes up a lot in the interviews we conducted with our 43 journalists.

Scotland, like my native world of Yorkshire, has always had a vibrant newspaper culture. You could argue that a certain kind of journalistic essay was invented in Scotland in the late 18th century, at the Edinburgh Review and Blackwoods magazine. Then there were newspapers like the Glasgow Sentinel, which rose and fell in a matter of months, closing in 1823. So the idea that national papers could now disappear altogether is not just alarming but mortifying. The need for us to investigate the investigators and guard the guardians has never been more pressing, or more real. And with all things real, we will always suggest, in our own way, that the theatre is the perfect zone of engagement with anything real.

One of our interviewees put the crisis in the newspaper industry in very stark terms. Scotland is a country which could be on the brink of independence, yet with sales continuing to decline, some of its newspapers are struggling for their lives. There is everything to fight for.

"Crisis? What crisis?" some people will say. But it will be the deepest irony of all, one day, if the Scottish people wake up in an independent country, and find they have to buy an English newspaper to read of their glorious new status.