As The Seattle Times prepares to move on the Post-Intelligencer's morning turf, the $64 million question is: Is the Hearst Corp., the P-I's absentee owner,

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Crunch, crunch

As The Seattle Times prepares to move on the Post-Intelligencer's morning turf, the $64 million question is: Is the Hearst Corp., the P-I's absentee owner, only interested in milking the P-I, even to the point of running the paper down, closing it, and raking in its guaranteed share of the Times' profits under their joint operating agreement? Or will Hearst actually invest to compete with the Times for morning circulation, as P-I executives insist and their minions bravely hope?

The argument turns in large part on how Hearst has treated the P-I so far. In a drum-beating staff memo noted in last week's Q&D, Times managing editor Alex MacLeod declared that "Hearst has consistently starved its papers while pocketing big profits" and has now "sold the P-I's future without a serious second thought." P-I managing editor Ken Bunting and editor/publisher J.D. Alexander countered in their own pep-raising memo, insisting that "Seattle has not been a cash cow for Hearst" and noting that the New Yorkbased company has plowed "around 85 percent of [its JOA] profits" back into Seattle, 70 percent as salaries.

But those "profits" are in fact Hearst's entire revenues from its 32 percent share in the Times/P-I JOA. The 85 percent is what it spends on its newsroom operation. And the 15 percent return on that is "roughly average [for daily newspaper profits] over the '90s," says Stephen Lacy, dean of Michigan State University's J-school and a scholar of newspaper economics. "The New York Times group would probably say that's a little high. It would be low for a Gannett or Knight-Ridder paper." It is higher than the average 1984-94 profits of 11 out of 15 newspaper companies tallied by one of Lacy's students, Hugh J. Martin, in the autumn 1998 issue of Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. Of those 15, only Gannett, Lee, Dow Jones, and the Washington Post Co. had higher profits than Alexander ascribes to the P-I. If it ain't a cash cow, it's at least a milking goat.

Front-porch form

One anomaly of the Times moving to morning: Since it manages the P-I's circulation and other business operations as well, the same carriers will probably deliver both papers. Having groaned to deliver just one paper when I was 12 years old, I can only imagine. But the real danger, P-I cartoonist David Horsey opines, is that "the agency that controls the JOA is not a neutral party—it's the Times," which presumably can't be trusted to handle the P-I's circulation now that it's stepping up the competition. Times folks pride themselves on performing that task scrupulously, and complaints have been few. But wait and watch the real test of the joint operation's integrity: Which paper winds up in the bushes?

Look it up

No sooner does this column note that the UW library had ceased its card-file index of the P-I and other Northwest journals, than the library debuts its new online index of articles on Northwest subjects from 1997 on in the P-I, Seattle Weekly, UW Daily, and selected other sources. "Please bear in mind that the Regional Index is still a work-in-progress," warns its indexer, the aptly named Jim Stack, "and you may encounter some glitches." Stack adds that the library has also begun entering in its "enormous" card-file index, with citations from 1850. As a research tool, this index is already valuable; when it's all online and searchable, it will be priceless.

Look it up at www.lib.washington.edu/specialcoll

/pnw_current/regional.html.

How Seattle's stacks stack up

Nearly 10 years ago, thencity librarian Liz Stroup declared a glorious-sounding official mission for the Seattle Public Library: to become "the best public library in the world." Well, the results are in—the first attempt to assemble quantified ratings and rankings of all America's public libraries. And guess what? According to the American Public Library Rating Index, the best public library in the world isn't even in the top quarter of US libraries serving 100,000 people or more.

The index is the creation of Tom Hennen, Racine, Wisconsin's chief librarian, who crunched the data sent by 7,128 public libraries to the US Department of Education. (Nearly 2,000 more systems, including King County's, didn't send enough data to be tabulated.) Since his report ran in January's American Libraries magazine, Hennen has been so busy fielding calls from shocked, flattered, and outraged librarians, he can barely keep up with his day job. He based his ratings on 15 indicators of library usage and resources, giving the most weight to how much cities spend on their libraries relative to population, how many people visit them, and their costs relative to the number of items checked out. The Seattle Public Library earned 607 out of 1,000 possible points, put-ting it in the 69th percentile among larger library systems—about the same as San Francisco and Albuquerque, better than Phoenix and San Diego, worse than Denver and Minneapolis.

Alan Deright, a famously dogged civic watchdog, happens to come from the city with the second-highest-rated library, Shawnee Mission, Kansas. Last week he scolded SPL's library board and managers for SPL's ranking; he thinks they have no business spending $235 million on new and renovated buildings (as they're about to do) when their performance is so disappointing.

But that ranking should be taken with a few caveats. Hennen himself notes that his evaluations don't consider two important criteria: how much library space cities have, and what Internet and other technologies they make available. There, Seattle's tech-friendly library might score well.

For her part, city librarian Deborah Jacobs says the index short-changes Seattle on one criterion, foot traffic, because until recently SPL only counted visitors to its downtown library, not the branches. And she argues that another criterion, "collection turnover," reflects better on libraries that offer a narrow range of "popular materials," which circulate more. "We're a research library," she explains (a marked, and welcome, contrast to the views of past SPL managers, who disavowed and undermined its research mission). "We don't weed [our collection]." That means Seattle keeps many hard-to-find books that are used less frequently but are all the more valuable to those who do use them.

Hennen's library ratings can be found at www.haplr-index.com.

What's in an acronym?

Besides SPL, Seattle has the SPD (Seattle Police Department) and SPU—whoops, two SPUs. Seattle Pacific University, which dates back to 1977, is the original SPU. But two years ago the city's water and solid-waste departments merged to form Seattle Public Utilities—which, sure enough, calls itself "SPU" on bills and mailings, though not on its logo. University staff recently got a puzzled call from someone wondering why it had sent him a utility bill. SPUniversity spokesman John Glance says this was an isolated complaint and sees no "big concern" in SPUtility using the same acronym in "a secondary way": "We hope we can coexist in our particular fields."

But SPUtility plans a big PR drive to build what its spokesman J. Paul Blake calls "greater visibility." Blake says the utility won't emphasize "SPU" in that campaign, but more confusion seems inevitable. If the city really wants to prevent that, it could call its utility "Spew."

Related Links:

The Seattle Times

Hennen's library ratings can be found at www.haplr-index.com.

Library index at www.lib.washington.edu/specialcoll

/pnw_current/regional.html.

 
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