During the French Revolution’s reign of terror, the American lexicon genius Noah Webster coined the word “demoralize” to describe the Jacobins destruction of France’s morals.

Demoralize is a good term to describe how national search engines are affecting the newspaper business.

Newspapers have been the heart and souls of communities. They cover school boards, city councils, courts, cops, weddings, obits, features and community events, etc. Their advertising departments work with local merchants to help keep the area economy viable. Some of each community’s most interesting people work at the newspaper.

Good people with great hearts have been attracted to the newspaper business because they saw it as a calling, something special that helped their communities and its residents. Lately, they have been demoralized by major changes in media consumption. They wonder: Is my job in jeopardy?

Some very smart people, living far away, figured out some very clever ways to send spiders and “bots” crawling online content n including newspapers, books, academic research projects. Google’s stated goal is to index everything on the Web.

In some ways this is a noble goal, and it certainly made the Internet more user-friendly. But there was a huge downside for those who have historically made their livings gathering and distributing community information.

The search engines — intentionally or otherwise — commoditized everyone else’s content. Commoditize means to make everything interchangeable, replaceable and generally cheaper. There is no scarcity of content, so it’s more difficult to achieve value from information gathering and distribution.

In the new world, search has become more valuable than content. Young readers especially go to search rather than destination sites for news and other information.

Google, Yahoo! and others sell billions of dollars in advertising on index pages of links to others — including newspapers’ — content.

Newspapers have gone along with this because they didn’t know what was happening or because they hoped the search engines will drive traffic back to the source site, the newspaper web site, where local ads are sold. This model has been increasingly challenged as the search engines sell local advertising on local search result pages.

The content that has been most commoditized is wire copy. AP copy, with the exception of state news, is all over the Web, and the AP is actively selling its report to various Internet-only plays. The AP is working hard to get value from Yahoo! and others, and is trying to get member papers to work together. Google and the AP have signed an agreement to get some of the pay-for-click advertising associated with AP content.

The AP is not sharing details of its deal publicly, but the San Jose Mercury News quoted AP CEO Tom Curley as saying, “The AP and others in the industry early on did not appreciate the value of the content and understand the economics of the marketplace as we do today. There’s been an evolution in our thinking.”

Curley has formed a committee to focus on the “proper use” of AP’s content by search engines. (Much of AP’s content comes from member newspapers.) Agency France Presse has taken a firmer line, suing Google in U.S. federal courts.

The use of wire copy all over the Internet has meant newspapers no longer get as much value as they once did from the AP. Many papers have eliminated exhaustive stock listings, trimmed national and international news and are looking at other content options.

Differentiators are what set a product or products off from others. What sets newspapers apart is its local content — local news, local features, local sports, local ads — and the reporters, editors, executives and advertising representatives who touch the community.

These differentiators have, at too many newspapers, been hurt by budget cuts, resulting in fewer reporters, editors and ad reps. Web widths have been cut and circulation has declined.

I think it’s time that newspapers become better products. Cover more local news, sports and features, and do all of this better. Offer advertisers and readers better products. Then protect this content from unfair use by Internet search engines.

The old newspaper model has been commoditized. Readers and advertisers are fleeing. It’s time to get better, and to protect the content newspapers produce from those who would like to demoralize the business.

It’s time to catch a serious case of quality.

(Marc Wilson is ceo of TownNews.com and president of The Job Network. He’s reachable at marcus@townnews.com.)