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Originally published January 28, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified January 28, 2007 at 5:02 PM

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Inside the Times | Mike Fancher

Barista story, pictures leave readers steamed

We were taken to task last week, but it wasn't the scolding we were expecting. We entered the week wary that some loyal readers wouldn't...

Seattle Times editor-at-large

We were taken to task last week, but it wasn't the scolding we were expecting.

We entered the week wary that some loyal readers wouldn't like the bold changes to Sunday Northwest Life, but reaction to the new section was fairly tame. Instead, a Page One story and photo about scantily clad baristas sent some readers into a spin. "Front page news?! You have got to be kidding," wrote one Seattle woman. "Did I miss something? Is this a NEWSpaper, or a porn magazine? If I owned one of the businesses cited in the article I'd be delighted with the free advertising. As a subscriber to your paper, I am appalled. Surely, you could find something more news-worthy to fill your front page."

Under the headline, "Some coffee stands get steamier," the Monday story by reporter Amy Roe said competition is prompting some merchants to feature "sexpresso."

Coffee stands in Tukwila, Port Orchard, Auburn, Woodinville, Shoreline, Kenmore and Renton "are adding bodacious baristas, flirty service and ever more-revealing outfits to the menu," the story said.

Some readers complained that The Times, like the coffee stands, was using sex to sell its product. Others said the story would have been fine somewhere other than the front page.

Some parents didn't want their children to see the suggestive attire in photographer Mike Siegel's pictures. "Now, I read my newspaper privately and I keep a pair of scissors handy. I don't believe in censoring the news. But I do not want to expose my kids to the filth," wrote a male reader.

Some felt the story trivialized the exploitation of the baristas, some still in high school. A Seattle mother, one of two people to cancel their subscription, wrote:

"I am raising a healthy and happy 6-year-old girl, a 6-year-old who is beginning to ask questions about what it means to be a girl. I wanted to thank you for throwing yet another negative image of women in her face. Bratz dolls, clothing that is age-inappropriate in the shops, and hundreds of images that she'll see this week all telling my daughter that girls are supposed to be sexy, be hot, be an object. Thanks for adding yet another picture to the stack."

Not all of the feedback was hostile. For example, a Woodinville woman thanked us for reporting on the trend, even though she finds it disappointing. "I'm glad to know I wasn't the only one noticing this strange trend. So what's next? Maybe the young men who bag my groceries will start showing up in bowties and thongs?!"

Reporter Roe said she pursued the story because she wondered where and how the concept began. "I figured the nature of the story would elicit some response from readers, but I never imagined it would be so visceral. I try to reply to everyone who writes in to at least let them know that I've 'heard' them and that I appreciate the reply, positive or negative.

"As a reporter, and as woman, I'm very interested in what they have to say. People are conflicted about whether it's OK to use female sex appeal to sell something, and if so, how it should be done and who should profit. I'm conflicted about that, too, so hearing from them helps me clarify my own perspective."

She added that she doesn't have second thoughts about doing the story, "although I do think one might be able to make a case against its placement. While it shocked a lot of people, which wasn't the point, it also started the kind of conversations I haven't had since grad school -- over coffee."

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Photographer Siegel said, "I figured it might hit a nerve. I took several photos from different angles that day but kept trying to work it so I had a few 'safe' images just in case the editors were not comfortable with the first few I turned in."

He said he got about half a dozen e-mails, all of them positive. "One person mentioned it was a nice change from hearing about death in Iraq."

Several editors shared in the decision to put the story on Page One. Joan Deutsch, local news editor, said she had not heard about the phenomenon even though she drives by one of the stands on her commute to work.

"So, I viewed this story as news that readers would want to know about. Either as the light-hearted effort that was intended -- or as a disturbing trend," she said. "The story didn't take a point of view. It described how the women dressed and behaved, and then explained the reason the owners had chosen this strategy. The story also included an opposing viewpoint of the neighboring store owners who were disgusted and moving."

She added, "Quite a bit of discussion went into the display of the package. We decided to run another story across the top of the page and put most of the barista photo below the fold on A1, to give it less prominence on the page. I was comfortable with that presentation."

Deutsch said she wasn't surprised at the response. "I've talked with quite a few readers who thought the story, the photos and/or the position of the story on A1 were inappropriate. I've encouraged them to explain their concerns, and I've told them that I can relate to most of those concerns.

"To answer those upset about what they see as the exploitation of women, I say that this type of story informs the public so people can make their own choices. It gives people the opportunity to be able to react by choosing to avoid these stands or keeping their children away from them.

"Mainly, I've let readers know how much we appreciate them taking the time to convey their thoughts. I've explained how our connection with them makes us a better newspaper."

Deutsch and Mike Stanton, executive news editor, said they were comfortable with the handling of the story and photos at the time, but wouldn't put the package on Page One if they had to make the call again.

"The lesson learned for me is that placing the story on A1 had such impact that it deeply offended certain readers. In hindsight, I don't think the story was significant enough to take that risk of alienating those readers," Deutsch said.

Stanton agreed. "It didn't have to be on Page One, and after listening to the deep hurt and disappointment some readers felt, I wouldn't put it out there if we had it to do over again."

That doesn't negate the consideration that went into the original decision, but it does demonstrate that we listen to readers and respect their concerns.

(A footnote: The barista article was far and away the most read story on our Web site for days. You can decide whether that suggests salacious interest, natural curiosity or both.)

Inside The Times appears in the Sunday Seattle Times. If you have a comment on news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310 or send e-mail to mfancher@seattletimes.com. More columns at www.seattletimes.com/columnists

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