The Great Wall of Fairview

Don't the very public security measures taken in response to the strike at The Seattle Times' Fairview Avenue headquarters make the paper look bad in the eyes of the public?

"Absolutely," admits Times Executive Editor Mike Fancher. "This strike is bad public relations for this company and its employees, all of us." However, he defends the use of what one picket sign labeled "Fences, goons, and plywood." The Times needs to guarantee the safety of workers who have crossed the picket lines, says Fancher, and the constant videotaping of strikers at the paper's Bothell printing plant has already helped refute a claim that a picketer was bumped by a truck.

A good point, but speaking of videotape, a lot of the Times' security measures seem especially menacing when viewed on television. Was it really necessary to surround those two small company-owned parks along Fairview Avenue with a chain-link fence? And it was definitely a public relations blunder to bring in Vance International, the military-style security firm that worked the contentious and sometimes-violent Detroit newspaper strike. You couldn't hire more convincing thugs at Central Casting.

Schell's silent treatment

Note to what's left of the Times and P-I editorial boards: Mayor Paul Schell's refusal to grant interviews to scab reporters isn't the most significant local issue of the last decade.

Hizzoner's "my lips are sealed" act not only got him front-page coverage in both papers but netted him editorial blasts from the Times on consecutive days. Sure, one of the poison pen jabs was a column by Editorial Page Editor Mindy Cameron; nevertheless, the paper still earns a 15-yard penalty for piling on. It might have been a classier move if Cameron had simply driven over to the mayor's office and kicked him in the shins.

OK, a mayor standing up for his principles is probably a good thing, but Schell has always been a guy who wants to do the right thing in the worst possible way—and that's usually how he does it. His original proclamation called for department heads to heed the no-interview rule and for the Times and P-I to be bounced from the city's press release list, a stand which allowed the dailies to howl about their freedom of access to governmental information. It also wasn't a bright idea to note that these strike press policies were based on King County Labor Council guidelines.

Seeing as the mayor announced months ago that he'd make a decision on a possible run for reelection "after the holidays," this is not the best time to pick a fight with the daily newspapers. When your biggest media booster calls you a '60s casualty and a wuss, it's hard to envision a bright political future.

Strike gets human face

In the first Sunday paper of the newspaper strike, Seattle Times Executive Editor Mike Fancher wrote his most important column ever.

Although there has been no shortage of information about the walkout by 1,000 employees of the Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Fancher's column was the first real try at stating management's side of the labor dispute and an important reminder to readers that the pain caused by a strike isn't felt only on the picket line. By the time Fancher's opinion piece hit the presses, striking columnists had posted hundreds of words' worth of strike-related musings on the Web strike newspaper, the Seattle Union Record (now available on newsprint).

Face time is a big deal during a strike. It's no accident that P-I sports columnist Art Thiel, who has been the major focus of that newspaper's advertising campaigns, ended up as the public spokesman for the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild. Ironically, as strikers were voting to hit the streets, the popular columnist's smiling mug was pasted on P-I machines across the city. ("They've taken care of that now," jokes Thiel.)

The first day's postings on the Union Record Web site included seven pieces by popular columnists, six on strike themes. A week into the walkout, eminently loveable P-I columnist Jon Hahn was busy recalling how he organized a strike of his elementary school safety patrol over a broken promise to provide hot chocolate on sub-zero mornings. (It's a cautionary tale: The "replacement" safety patrol workers ended up with the cocoa and cookies; troublemaker Hahn got eraser-cleaning duty.)

This is one front where the newspapers can't keep up. Recent editions have seen generic "Times staff" and "P-I staff" labels where reporters' bylines ought to be. This is a result of stories being either written by managers, compiled by more than one person, written before the strike by now-idled staffers, or created by folks who aren't eager to publicly proclaim that they've crossed the picket line.

Fancher says there isn't a set policy for which pieces get bylines during the strike. "It's just a story-by-story and case-by-case judgment." Maybe so, but there have been definite signs that management has figured out that facelessness is not a good thing. As the papers have grown, the number of bylines has grown with it. The P-I has even anointed it's own Temporary Thiel, Executive Sports Editor Pete Wevurski, who at least meets the two major sports columnist prerequisites: a friendly-sounding first name and facial hair.

But some old habits die hard: A week into the strike, the P-I's Web site still featured a link to the latest editorial cartoon by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Horsey. It didn't work—all you got was a dated drawing, not Horsey's latest offering in the Union Record.

 
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