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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, November 20, 2005

My column today is about you personally, and about how cute your cat is. Or dog. Or, if you don't have a pet, it is about your kid, who is the smartest and best-behaved child I've ever known, unless your child is an adult, in which case you should be very proud of all he has accomplished. Or she.

Wait. Hang on a minute. Gotta get a grip here. We newspaper journalists are getting a little desperate for readership these days. The newspaper industry is undergoing a period of strategic self-appraisal, which is a business term for "blinding terror." Every day, newsrooms across the country are hearing about declining circulation, and this always seems to come as a shock. We journalists -- a famously skeptical and analytical group of people -- just can't seem to understand why people aren't buying as many subscriptions as they once did, and are instead reading our online versions, which we give away free.

The Web, in general, seemed to take newspaper publishers by surprise. They knew that they had to become a part of this bold and exciting new technology, on the theory that they'd eventually figure out how to make it pay. They are still trying to figure it out. (When they do, it will be a big story, which they'll immediately post on their Web site for maximum readership.)

Me, I'm not that personally worried about declining circulation. As the comics pages alone amply demonstrate, there will always be a market for infantile humor. No, I'm more worried about the things that newspaper editors are trying to do in an effort to stop the decline in circulation. Editors seem to believe that the way to attract more readers is to be nicer and more responsive to them, reversing a hallowed, hundred-year tradition in which journalists treated readers like fungi. Back in the crusty old days -- when newsmen gargled scotch from tankards, smoked cigars as thick as bratwurst and pistol-whipped sources into talking -- readers were essentially seen as nuisances. When a reader came into a newsroom with a complaint, he would be sent from desk to desk, finally being directed to the "complaints department," which turned out to be the fourth-floor urinal.

Today, if you have a complaint, the publisher himself will come to your house, apologize, wash your car, do your dishes, and so forth. Desperate, is what we are.

Desperation often leads to disaster. Some months ago, the Los Angeles Times tried a grand experiment in which it permitted readers to actually add their own commentary to the paper's online editorials. This worked splendidly for a whole, entire day, with thoughtful people posting erudite, respectful observations, until the porn began. By day three, when the experiment was discontinued, the vaunted online Latimes.com editorial page looked like the sort of Web site advertised with subject lines like HOTT BU$TY V*XENS PERFORRRM WTH L!VE GO*ATS ON V!A!G!R!A.

Just the other day I learned of something even more disturbing. To show how much it values its readers' viewpoints, the Spokane (Wash.) Spokesman-Review has begun a program called the "transparent newsroom." The editors invite the public to news meetings, encouraging them to watch and even participate as the editors discuss the news of the day, their plans for coverage, etc. With no disrespect to the members of the public -- you know who you are -- I think this is a terrible idea. If a horse produced by a committee comes out looking like a camel, a horse produced by a committee that is being assisted by well-intentioned, earnest, helpful, highly opinionated members of the public who happen to have this kind of time on their hands, if you know what I am saying, would come out looking like a . . . like a . . . like a . . .

"a wildebeest!"

I am quoting Doug Clark, who is a metro columnist for the Spokesman-Review. I'd phoned Doug and asked him to finish my simile. All kidding aside, though, I figured that, as a team player, Doug must be pretty doggone proud of his newspaper's new policy of openness. I asked him for his view of the transparent newsroom.

"My view? Well, I try not to look that way," he said. "It's a little to my right, so if I just look straight ahead, I can avoid ever having to see it. All I see is my old movie poster for something called the 'Cattle Queen of Montana.' Ronald Reagan is in the background, and Barbara Stanwyck is in front with her hand on a six-gun, and the poster reads, 'She strips off her petticoats and straps on her guns!' I prefer focusing on that. I can get all the inspiration I need right there about how to deal with the public."

Okay, maybe there's hope.

Gene Weingarten's e-mail address is weingarten@washpost.com.

Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon at www.washingtonpost.com.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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