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The Seattle Times

Feisty, Independent Newspapers Help Democracy Function

Ryan Blethen

WASHINGTON — It is easy to get distracted by the bad news in this business. The usual worries that permeate a workplace have been superseded by a grinding fear that the newspaper industry will die within a generation or change to the point of being unrecognizable.

For the past couple of years, most industry conventions and gatherings have been laced with anxiety and guided by questions. Questions of instability, longevity. Questions about purpose, competition.

My frustration with the industry's victim mentality reached a low last year when the American Society of Newspaper Editors met in Seattle. A number of panels dealt with technology and threats to newspapers. We listened as somebody from Google News lightly talked about how search engines rip off our content. I complained about this in a column and also noted that the most impressive session was not about journalism, but an address given by the head of Starbucks.

My hope was that this year's ASNE conference would be different. Disappointment was averted by a conference focused on a solid future for newspapers and a number of visits I paid to organizations involved in media matters.

Any editor hand-wringing should have lessened Tuesday, the first day of the conference, when ASNE president David Zeeck gave his address. I have known Zeeck for a number of years and admire the job he has done as the executive editor of The News Tribune in Tacoma.

Every editor should return to their newsrooms with copies of Zeeck's speech. It would make for a nice change from the daily stream of news about layoffs, sale speculation and general negativism that can dominate the industry's favorite source of newspaper information at Romenesko on the Poynter Institute's Web site.

Zeeck's address set the perfect tone for the conference. Much to my delight, he said the obvious: Search engines that dabble in news essentially take our content for their own, and that newspapers serve a community like no other Web site or blog can. He asked, where were these site's reporters at City Hall?

He drove the point by rightly asserting that the work newspapers do makes a difference in communities across the country and drives the national agenda.

I have long thought editors and newsrooms should familiarize themselves with Free Press, a group that pushes to inform and give the public a voice in the national media debate. That sentiment was reinforced after meeting with a couple people from Free Press this week and hearing about their desire to work with more mainstream journalists.

Not only has Free Press affected the national agenda — or upset the agenda of Biggies that have consolidated all aspects of the media — but they are fighting for independent newspapers to remain so and to lessen the grip on the industry of Wall Street-driven corporations.

One of the themes at ASNE was for editors to become more active in advocating for journalism, whether that be through promoting a shield law or by writing a weekly column that explains to readers how newsrooms work. There is no reason that activism cannot join with Free Press, which holds dear a guiding principle of every journalist: Aggressive journalism is needed for our democracy to function.

That's not easy if one works for a large chain that advocates rotten public policy, but it's an easy call for an editor who works for an independent-minded chain or privately owned newspaper that gets it.

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

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