It's not better in the morning

Teamsters fight to stop The Seattle Times' move to morning publication.

If The Seattle Times Co. and the Hearst Corp. have their way, Seattle will soon have two morning newspapers. But some angry delivery drivers think that that's one too many.

Earlier this month, members of the Teamsters union, which represents some 90 bulk delivery drivers working for The Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, voted to try to block the Times' proposed move to morning circulation. The Times' plan, which was announced last February, will "lead to an inevitable monopoly," says Bob Hase-gawa, secretary treasurer of Teamsters Local 174. "That means loss of jobs and loss of diversity of editorial opinion." The Teamsters intend to petition the US Justice Department to stop the Times' move. Failing that, a lawyer representing the union is threatening to sue. This is the first sign of organized, formal opposition to the plan for two morning papers.

Since 1983, the locally owned Times and the Hearst-owned P-I have been publishing under a joint operating agreement (JOA), which allows the two papers to function as a single entity for business purposes (overseen by the Times), while preserving competing editorial staffs. The purpose of JOAs, which exist in a number of other US cities, is to save failing urban newspapers (the P-I, in this case). The original JOA was vigorously opposed in court by a local citizens group, concerned that Seattle would shortly become a one-newspaper town.

In February, the Times Co. and Hearst announced they were amending their JOA to allow the Times to move to the more attractive morning slot, after 102 years as the afternoon paper. Management of the two papers portrayed the move as an occasion for more vigorous competition between them. But critics, such as the Teamsters, see the new JOA amendments as simply a means of quietly killing off the P-I rather than saving it. "The goal is to squash the P-I," says Hasegawa.

In fact, the financial arrangements that are a part of the agreement even seem to encourage the P-I to shut down. According to the new amendments to the JOA, either the Times or P-I could quit business after three unprofitable years, and owners of the defunct paper would still reap hefty long-term profits. For example, Hearst, which is based in New York, could close down the P-I and still collect 32 percent of all JOA profits until the year 2083—all without the expenses of running a paper. That's a decades-long platinum parachute for Hearst, while workers who produce and deliver the paper would simply be out of a job.

Dmitri Iglitzin, a lawyer representing the Teamsters, sees it like this: "If you and I are selling gasoline in a given market, and I pay you to go out of business so I can be the only person selling gas, that is a clear antitrust violation. The Times and P-I have set up a situation with an incentive to do that. The P-I makes more money potentially if it goes out of business." Karen Blackwood, delivery driver and Teamster member, says, "The way they've got it set up, it looks like the P-I is not going to care if it folds."

Times managing editor Alex MacLeod dismisses a shutdown of either paper: "It's in the best interest of the JOA for both morning papers to be successful. Business is built on the combined circulation of two papers from an advertising standpoint." P-I publisher J.D. Alexander echoes this sentiment: "The last thing I want to hear is another prediction that one paper is going to die, because it's not going to happen."

As it happens, top brass from both Hearst (which owns 100 percent of the P-I) and Knight-Ridder (which owns 49 percent of the Times) were in town last week. Though rumors flew that the executives sat down together for a meeting, Alexander says the two groups "passed pleasantries in a hotel lobby, but that was about it." And he says that the visit from Hearst testifies that "if somebody's going to expire here, there's no way we intend for it to be us." He says Hearst executives "are interested. They're very encouraged by what we're doing, and encouraging."

Even if the P-I does not immediately fold, the Times' move to the morning will likely mean pink slips for some workers and upheaval for others.

Times managing editor Alex MacLeod says he doesn't have knowledge about what specific job losses may occur, but states that because of the change to morning "we won't need some circulation infrastructure." He adds, "There is an assumption that there will be some economies."

Drivers who have spent years delivering the Times during the daytime will now be completing their workday before dawn. "Drivers at the top of the seniority list will be the most greatly impacted," notes driver Judy Roesbery. "They've been with the company for over 20 years and are looking at a total reversal of their lives." Press operators, electrical workers, and machinists who run and maintain the printing presses would also have to adjust to a graveyard work shift.

Desk workers at the Times will undergo a major switch. Carole McClosky, a copy editor at the Times, expects that she will have to work from 5pm to 1am to produce a morning paper, 12 hours removed from her current morning shift. "When you've got a school-age kid, mommy time is 3pm to 9pm. If you're not home, you're not able to raise your kid." She adds, "A lot of people just don't work at a.m. papers when they have children."

"Adjustment of work schedules compared to the possibility of job losses is a minor issue," MacLeod says. "But that doesn't mean we're not working with our people to find the best schedule possible."

Layoffs will almost certainly be immediate for an estimated 175 "junior carriers"—school-age kids who make home deliveries for the Times. Parents just don't want their kids out at 3 in the morning, and the Times has already given notice that this after-school gig may disappear sometime in the next two years. Adult "spotters" who deliver to these kids will also likely lose their jobs.

On April 12, members of the Teamsters voted to take action to block the changes to the JOA. The Teamsters intend to approach the feds about possible illegalities in the new agreement, and "if the Justice Department doesn't stop it, we'll file a lawsuit," says Teamsters attorney Iglitzin. (A Justice Department spokesperson has already said that her department is "unlikely" to raise antitrust objections to the agreement.)

Iglitzin intends to file his suit "before the Times implements a morning paper," which could happen this summer, he guesses. An April 7 internal memo to Times employees signed by publisher Frank Blethen stated that "by early May we hope to have final approval of the operating plan. Once that is in place we can begin the work that is needed to establish the timing for [the switch]."

But the Teamsters' resistance to a morning Times has so far not received firm support from other unions representing newspaper workers. "We're just not sure what effect [a morning Times] is going to have," says Gene Achziger, president of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild, a union representing journalists and newspaper desk workers. The guild has taken no official stance against the planned change, though Achziger acknowledges: "If one paper goes under, then we could lose half our membership."

"We're kind of waiting and seeing," says Mike Hendrix, business representative of Local 46 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents electricians at the Times' printing presses.

If and when the Times gets a shot at the morning slot, P-I publisher J.D. Alexander promises that his paper will be ready with a new editorial strategy: "The primary differentiation up to now has been the publishing cycle. When you're both going morning, you look for other factors to differentiate." Alexander would not specify what he has in mind, but Elliott Avenue observers may want to keep a close eye on which way the P-I globe is spinning, and whether it starts slowing down.

 
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