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Friday, April 28, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Ryan Blethen / Times editorial columnist

Be afraid, dear readers

There are many gloomy predictions about newspapers in the cyber world. Frequently, these predictions of the newspaper's demise are sent in the form of nasty e-mails that ooze with joy at the irrelevance of the MSM. (MSM is not a news division at Microsoft, but the mainstream media.)

Those radical conservative and grass-roots liberal bloggers who trumpet their hatred for the press, on which they rely for vitriol, are wrong about the fall of newspapers. It has nothing to do with being too liberal or too conservative. It has to do with our treatment of readers, no matter their political stripe.

Newspaper readers have much to fear. That is the feeling I took away from the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference, which ends today in Seattle.

While there was no gravedigger at the conference throwing dirt on our boxed corpse, it worries me that the two speakers who made the most sense were a guy who sells coffee and an editor who is no longer in the newsroom.

The demise of the reader/journalist relationship was displayed during a panel on the Web and newspaper innovators. Not once did any panelist use the word "reader." Instead, readers were referred to as "our audience" and "users."

Words still matter, and most readers probably do not want to be labeled as an audience or as users. Those are words for a group that watches sitcoms, or the wielders of can openers.

I found Nathan Stoll, the product manager of Google News, the most interesting panel member. Stoll manages the portion of Google that scours the Internet for news stories.

Essentially, Google News is hijacking news with no compensation to newspapers. The search engines then get credit for the entire news-gathering and presentation process. A lot of online news reader say they get their news from Google or Yahoo! — even though all those sites do is use a program that grabs the news off newspaper Web sites.

The search engines are dismantling the role a newspaper plays in assembling a contextual package. At daily news meetings across the nation, the reader might or might not be mentioned but is always a factor when deciding which stories to place on page one, where to play articles and photos, and which headlines to use. All are ingredients that are used to provide readers with the knowledge to help make sense of events and communities.

Readers are at risk of losing the care newspaper journalists take to gather and present news. A broad coalition that includes corporate ownership, the Internet, partisanship and greed has formed to weaken the trust between readers and their newspapers. There is hope, though.

Publishers and corporations that own newspapers should get a copy of Howard Schultz's ASNE keynote address. The chairman of Starbucks spoke passionately about the importance of treating employees with respect, and building tangible relationships with people. Most importantly, he said newspapers can help heal our fractured society by telling the truth and building trust.

He is right. The handful of companies that own vast numbers of the nation's newspapers could learn something from Schultz's belief in people. Most of these companies are publicly traded and treat newspapers as just another commodity, not as a cornerstone of community and democracy.

John Carroll, a much-respected editor who is now a visiting lecturer at Harvard University's Shorenstein Center, did a masterful — and appropriate — job painting a dark picture of his profession. He bemoaned the world of corporate journalism and the rise of search engines for news.

"How galling for us to be replaced by an algorithm," he said.

How galling, indeed. The fractured worldview of the search engines makes it easier for communities to drift apart. That drift is exacerbated by public companies that have hollowed many proud newsrooms.

Journalists need to listen to the head barista and the visiting lecturer. If we do not, those nasty e-mails from the blogosphere will be bounced back into a mocking Web.

Ryan Blethen's column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is rblethen@seattletimes.com

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