It would be nice to be able to say, "Told you so." But in all the reams that I and other reporters, commentators, pundits, and fretful news junkies wrote in the early '80s, as the Seattle Times/P-I joint-operating arrangement came into being, I don't recall anyone anticipating this: That the Times would move to morning publication and "compete head-on" (as people at both papers like to say) with the P-I. In return, the Hearst Corp., the P-I's absentee owner, would get somewhat less onerous joint-operating terms. It would receive 40 percent rather than 32 percent of the "profits" remaining after the Times is paid to run both papers' advertising, circulation, and printing (and a healthy management fee). And it can now do what everyone else in America does: put news on its Web site, which had been forbidden under the Times' punishing interpretation of their agreement (one more unforeseen consequence of an agreement drafted back when a web was a kind of press).
Eighteen years ago, when the papers first set out to get the federal nod for their semi-merger, it seemed more likely that the P-I would limp along, grumpy and underfunded, forever. Or it would catch fire, exploit the "morning advantage" that has proven a winning edge in every other two-newspaper market, and overtake the Times in circulation and size (though not in profits, which are locked in). But cede the morning advantage? Never!
Two factors appear to have forced the P-I to accede to this devilish bargain: one, the Web site, which the Times held hostage on grounds the JOA gave it control over all P-I "business" decisions. And, perhaps more urgent, the prospect of splitting the $150 million to $170 million cost of building a new printing plant in Renton—just so the Times could beat the afternoon traffic on the East and South sides (likewise not anticipated 18 years ago).
The problem was the lousy deal Hearst struck in 1981. Elsewhere, jointly operated afternoon papers with smaller circulation—including Hearst's own San Francisco Examiner—split the take 50-50 with much stronger morning papers. But Hearst had long been the suitor going into this joint m鮡ge. The Times rebuffed it and, feeling full of beans in 1980, launched a full-scale, home-delivered morning edition meant to kill the competition. Only when it spent a bundle and failed to dislodge the P-I's morning hold did it agree to a JOA.
That deal was supposed to keep Seattle a two-newspaper town for at least 50 years. Its opponents, who fought all the way to the door of the US Supreme Court, countered that it would keep it a too-mediocre-newspaper town, with extortionate ad rates and no chance of a better operator buying the P-I and putting the morning advantage to work. And indeed, it has kept the P-I poor and shabby-looking, with just half the Times' newsroom staff.
But in 1983, the same year the Seattle JOA finally cleared the courts, the chains that owned St. Louis' jointly operated dailies gave the game a new spin: They tried to fold the afternoon Globe-Democrat, even though it (like the Times) had the larger circulation, and split the profits from the morning Post-Dispatch. The feds made them try to sell it first, and the Globe-Democrat got run down by a couple of weak owners (the last of whom gave it religion, which rarely sells newspapers). By 1988 it had lost half its circulation, and no one stopped the Post-Dispatch from swallowing it. Since then, joint publishers in Miami, Knoxville, and elsewhere have discovered it's more profitable to publish one paper and still split the profits.
How long will both Seattle papers last in what will be not simply competition but weird cohabitation? The Times ad and circulation people are supposed to continue selling the P-I, even as their own paper tries to smash it. But hey, they're pros—they can still throw their hearts into it.
Times publisher Frank Blethen is adamant that his family's paper will be around for the duration. Ask him, "Would you ever sell?" "Absolutely not!"
The P-I sounded similarly stout-hearted in its February 3 editorial congratulating itself and the Times on their new face-off: "We like the idea that our grandchildren's grandchildren will be able to get information and ideas from two robust and reliable papers." Not if you believe Frank Blethen. "If I really wanted to think long-term," he says, "say 20 to 25 years, it would really surprise me to see Seattle support two metropolitan daily newspapers, given current trends. For five to 10 years? We're going to give it our best shot."
Still, at least some P-I reporters seem as juiced as their Times counterparts about competing for stories on the same clock. "I think it'll be fun," says one, "no matter what happens to the P-I."
Enjoy it while it lasts.
Curtains for the Speakeasy?
Barring a rescue, the Speakeasy—Belltown's seminal cybercafe/performance hall/art gallery/new-music venue/community center—plans to shut down in June. Speakeasy president Mike Apgar insists it didn't suffer from ever-widening Internet access, which might make such cafes less necessary: "Our Internet business has never been better." Rather, the blow came when the state Liquor Control Board ordered the Speakeasy to stop admitting minors during music performances (after 9pm), which drove them off at other times as well. Apgar claims that killed "30 percent" of the Speakeasy's business, not to mention its all-ages, "European neighborhood" atmosphere. Plus the landlord seems unlikely to renew its lease, because of neighbors' complaints about the music. But hope still glimmers. Apgar waits to hear whether a (still secret) "community organization" will step in to run the Speakeasy's cafe side as a performance space—without music.
Steal this book site
Reader advisory: Do not go to www.abebook.com, the Web address this column (1/29) gave for the Advanced Book Exchange, a Vancouver-based used-book search service. And please don't tell your kids to hunt for Judy Blume first editions there. That URL patches into one of those intrusive porn sites (this one operated by "Vine Enterprises") that try to siphon off hits by staking out domain names just slightly altered from those of heavily trafficked sites. Advanced Book Exchange is actually at www.abebooks.com. "We put in a formal complaint to Internic [which registers domain names] but nothing came of it," says ABE marketing director Cathy Waters. Will the next porn opportunist try Amazun.cum?