Hey, newspapers, quit whining!

The newspaper industry would be better prepared to deal with the unprecedented new competition it faces from online publishing if its leadership would quit peddling stereotypes and instead start looking at the Internet with a reporter’s eye.

The outgoing president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Dave Zeeck, attacked online publishers in a speech to the ASNE this week. Zeeck, the editor of the News-Tribune in Tacoma, Wash., recycled many of the tired arguments refuted in my commentary, Are blogs a ‘parasitic’ medium?, earlier this month.

From Zeeck’s speech:

“I’m told the blogosphere is going to eat our lunch. Well, the blogosphere, for the most part, spends its infinitely expanding gas talking about what we – newspapers – write, not what some blogger reported. If newspapers disappeared tomorrow it would be like pulling the fuel rods from a nuclear reactor: the lights would go out and the blogosphere wouldn’t produce a single BTU of intellectual heat.

“It’s the same with the Internet in general. When someone tells me they get their news from the Internet, I want to say: ‘Oh yeah? So, tell me again, how many reporters does Yahoo have at City Hall? How many correspondents from Google are risking their lives in Iraq?’

“People working for dot.coms go to jail for stock fraud or backdating options, not for disclosing important truths and protecting their confidential source?

“News on the Internet – news from real communities, new about real governments and real wars – comes from flesh-and-blood reporters. And they’re dispatched from our newsrooms, not the soulless zero-gravity of the Internet.”

What a load of clueless nonsense.

Zeeck falls into the typical news industry trap of viewing journalism as the exclusive work of company newsrooms. No, Google and Yahoo do not have huge news staffs. They are aggregators, providing the publicity, and increasingly, the advertising sales for a growing population of independent reporters. But the lack of a Gannett-sized online-only news business does not preclude the existence of thousands of independent online news publishers, many doing solid reporting.

Where’s the independent online journalist covering Iraq? Right here, and we just profiled him on OJR. Where are the indie online journalists covering city hall? There’s one of my former USC students doing just that over there, and here’s a slew of others.

While top mainstream news reporters are laughing off Washington corruption, a bunch of bloggers are exposing what appears to be the most corrupt administration since Nixon, if not in all of U.S. history.

You want to talk about shady business deals in the dot-com world? Okay, and shall we talk about the Tribune/Times Mirror tax deal while we are at it? I’m sure the name Conrad Black is familiar to many in ASNE, as well.

Credit Zeeck with this: “Journalism is important.” And the public craves the truth that great journalism provides. But journalism is best defined by its substance, not by who produces it. Ill-informed insults — “infinitely expanding gas,” if you will — are not journalism, even when they come from a newspaper editor.

Newspaper companies retain substantial assets — money, employees, brand names, community relationships — with which they can beat their new online competition. Instead of whining about and dismissing it at industry conferences, newspaper leaders ought instead to take a clear look at the blogs and websites which are luring their readers. Yes, there are too many “gasbags” in the media. Newspaper editors ought not join them.