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Originally published Friday, September 24, 2010 at 2:50 PM

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Guest columnist

Keeping the journalistic watchdog alive and feisty

These are dangerous days for our nation, writes Seattle Times Publisher Frank Blethen. One of the root reasons is that we have lost our popular independent press.

Seattle Times Publisher

Editor's note: This column is a version of a speech Frank Blethen gave to the Washington Coalition for Open Government Sept. 17 as he accepted its 2010 James Madison Award.

GOOD watchdog journalism is hard and often lonely work.

It's time-consuming. It's costly. It engenders hostility and enmity from powerful individuals and organizations. I know only too well as the publisher of The Seattle Times for three decades that good ownership pays a dear price — financially and personally — in the pursuit of mission.

When the powerful and wealthy are permitted to operate without scrutiny and without accountability, we become a nation whose government and economy are run by secretive elites.

We become a nation of haves and have-nots.

Once citizens no longer believe in the American dream, they have no vested interest in perpetuating the existing forms of government or economy.

After 234 years, America's self-government experiment is on life support.

These are dangerous days for our nation. One of the root reasons is that we have lost our popular independent press.

Sixty years ago noted journalist Walter Lippman said:

"The secret of a truly free press is that it should consist of many newspapers decentralized in their ownership and their management, and dependent for their support upon the communities where they are written, where they are edited and where they are read.

There is safety in numbers, and in diversity, and in being spread out, and in having deep roots in many places. Only in variety is there freedom."

Monolithic corporate ownership now controls the press rather than a system of independent newspapers providing aggressive, robust local coverage and a wide variety of voices.

For the most part, these bottom-line obsessed corporations have turned our watchdog into their lap dog, leaving us in a dangerous vacuum of too many untold stories, too little scrutiny, and too little transparency.

Quite literally, our newspapers and broadcast houses, our phones, our cable, our satellite dishes and the Internet have been co-opted by a handful of powerful financial mercenaries.

Despite the proliferation of new communication and social tools, almost all the substantive news and information necessary for self-government and community originates from our newspapers.

And despite the myths out there, the newspaper business is viable and profitable with virtually all newspapers making money, even in the middle of this terrible economic recession.

Indeed, readership is strong and the public values the content enough to pay for it — to the tune of $10 billion a year.

We do not have a readership or business model problem — what we have is an ownership and control problem.

Few realize that 80 percent of newspaper revenue is controlled by a handful of financially driven corporations. Or that 75 percent of all Internet advertising is controlled by only four companies.

Washington state has only four local daily newspaper owners left.

The Seattle Times, which is now the second-largest newspaper on the West Coast, is one of only four privately owned, local metropolitan newspapers left in the country's top 50 markets.

If the current dominant ownership class and its control scare you, consider the near future; the emerging new dominant newspaper and broadcast owners are the very banks and venture capitalists that put us into today's economic crisis.

How does this happen? With the reckless lending and borrowing that enabled the creation of newspaper chains and media conglomerates. As these borrowers turn to bankruptcy restructuring because they can't handle the crushing corporate debt, despite profitable newspapers and TV stations, the banks and venture capitalists are fast replacing them as the new owners. Not a good trend for watchdog journalism.

Because of the economy and forced cutbacks, newsrooms around the state are not providing the breadth of coverage required for government accountability. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Olympia. But at least, with the help of the Washington Coalition for Open Government, the press and citizen activists can seek to uncover the most egregious secrets and abuses of power in our never-ending effort to hold state and local government accountable.

It pains me to see the shriveling of government reporting. My watchdog journey began in 1976, as the 31-year-old publisher of the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin. I found myself in court testifying against a respected school superintendent for an egregious violation of the Open Meetings Act. It had a good outcome and set the stage for my career-long passion of pursuing open meetings and public records.

More recently in 2003, The Times spent about a half-million dollars pursuing records and defending ourselves from some of our most respected school districts and the Washington Education Association.

The resulting investigative series, "Coaches Who Prey," is a piece of work that stands as one of the proudest of my career.

The series detailed how our community's dirty, hidden secret was the way school districts quietly passed on sexual predators to prey on kids in other districts. For years I struggled to understand this — how otherwise intelligent, moral educators could place their public image and fear of the WEA ahead of the health and safety of students.

Our work on abusive coaches is an example of what newspapers should do: expose corruption and wrongdoing even if it is expensive and angers the powerful. Without openness, transparency and accountability, otherwise principled and moral people can succumb to illegal and immoral behavior.

Frank Blethen is publisher of The Seattle Times and a member of the fourth generation of Blethens who have owned The Times for 114 years.

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