A Real Newspaper Guy

J.D. Alexander, editor and publisher of the P-I, is an old-school, up-from-the-newsroom newsie who runs his fiefdom with a tight hand. As such, he is one of the shapers of Seattle's agenda, yet few outside the paper know his views or what makes him tick. Here's his story.

Editor's note: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer editor and publisher J.D. Alexander died June 14 at a hospital near his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. This article was originally published by Seattle Weekly on Aug. 9, 1995.

He smokes, and, on an even healthier note, he drinks.

An old-school editor and unreformed Tarheel such as J.D. Alexander might be pleased to see that in the lead. Except, dang it boy, he's a big-city publisher now. How's that going to look in print?

"Don't start the rumor I drink a lot," Alexander growls from across the table in the back of Il Bistro, a glass of Bombay rocks, two onions, in hand. "I don't know where that comes from. I have a few, I relax, that's it."

Over at the bar, Mur the Blur, fastest ginslinger in the West, is keeping an eye on our table. "He's a big guy," Murray Stenson says of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's hefty publisher, described by one of his faithful reporters as Jabba the Hutt, the squat Star Wars character. "So I'm giving him the big glasses."

Lightly bearded, sporting black-rimmed glasses, the executive editor of the Hearst-owned P-I since 1986 and editor-publisher since August 1993, Jasper D. Alexander (named for his dad, with a middle initial but no middle name) slips another Carlton 100 from his pack. He pauses to watch the late afternoon crowd drift in from Pike Place Market. It's sunny outside and the bar is cool, cast in amber. Music trickles from the sound system. Alexander likes to take his time before he answers a question, sittin' and suckin' a bit as they do back home in cigarette capital Winston-Salem, where you can smoke on the public buses and send your kids to the Tobaccoville Child Development Center.

He's been called J.D. since the first grade there, as in "Now J.D., leave Mary Jo be and read your Hearst Credo if you want to grow up and be publisher." Some of his pauses stretch into the next time zone, and so you go on with another question. That's usually when he answers the first one.

"If you ..."

"When I broke in, we used to ride around with the cops, hang out with the older reporters, drinking, staying out late, talking about women, stories we missed, stories we've done," he says with a rasp that seems to rise from the grave. "The best journalism is being there, being out on the story. You don't get the good stories staring at the walls. Used to be, anyway."

There really is, or was, a Hearst Credo, The Credo of William Randolph Hearst, a how-to guide regularly issued to top editors of the then far-flung Hearst empire. It contained Hearst's words of wisdom on what made journalism great if not yellow. Alexander hadn't heard about the booklet until recently, but he is impressed, particularly with the Old Man's long-ago notion that your daily front page carry one truly original story no one else had. "He said that?" Alexander asks. "It's absolutely true today as well, even more so with TV skimming off the top."

If others want to forget those and other hallowed notions of newspapering, Alexander—heavy on the editor, light on the publisher—is an exception. Nothing beats old-fashioned legwork, and while some publishers might think that means a good rubdown at the club, Alexander can talk about it firsthand. He makes no pretense at having been anything other than mostly a deskman in his nearly 40 years of newspapering. But he had his day, sitting on the hood of a car for four hours, waiting for a Watergate figure to emerge from a Washington Redskins game, then leaving with an exclusive for the editing/writing national staff of The Washington Post. As a reporter he also covered the riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination and learned an empirical lesson about newsroom diversity: "That's when papers first understood that whites couldn't go into ghetto areas and get the stories we needed." He knows enough to tell you to chase a few ladder trucks or slip around a homicide scene—then go be publisher.

Start, he suggests, as he did at ground zero, a twice-a-week teenage sportswriter taking ball scores on the phone for his hometown paper, the Winston-Salem Journal. He wrote his way through school (hometown university Wake Forest, '61 ) and ascended to the Post, 1967-74. (His desk job included the daunting task of editing political pundit Joseph Alsop, where changing a word required a little kneeling and crossing before striking out any references about the mood in Washington.) He then went to the San Diego Union, where he was editor and managing editor, 1974-86. He came to the P-I as executive editor in 1986 and was named publisher upon Virgil Fassio's retirement in 1993. In an age when most editor-publishers are masters of the art of delegation (sandwiching an occasional editorial board meeting between their civic rounds), Alexander is an exceptional, hands-on, and heavily involved editor, perhaps the last of his kind in Seattle journalism. The world "relic" comes to mind. But Alexander is giving it a good reputation.

His path to the ivory tower is a road less traveled by other publishers. Most now tend to come out of the business or the family side, not from the conspiratorial ranks of the newsroom—although Alexander's Tacoma counterpart and old friend Kelso Gillenwater, publisher of The News Tribune, thinks that tide may be shifting. "J.D.'s one of the rare people who carry the editor-publisher title, but I suspect that over time we'll see more people with editorial backgrounds moving into upper management," says Gillenwater, himself an ex-reporter. "That will come about with increasing emphasis on improving the contents of the product."

As Alexander, 56, sees it, he brings something new as well as something old to this Hearstian wedding. "I guess I'm old enough to be old school," he says. "But that doesn't mean I'm old fashioned."

No doubt, part of him is a throwback. He can revisit the burnished newspaper days of manual typewriters, smoky newsrooms, and news copy pasted together at an editing desk. He was around when stories were rushed to a clattering backshop through a pneumatic tube, distributed to an operator who sat down at the keyboard of a contraption called the Linotype (invented by a man who later went crazy) which turned words into tiny lines of lead, produced from bars called pigs, locked into page frames called chases, transported atop metal tables called turtles, pressed into matrixes, wrenched to a press in plates, and rushed to street corners in extras—a great, thrilling thing then to be scanned, disputed, and discarded with the coffee grounds and fish remains.

"I have to admit, I never thought it was a particularly bright idea to deliver information that rubs off in your hands and screws up your white couch," Alexander grumbles. "But newspapers have something special, portability. You can't stand with your hand in a strap on the sub­way and read your PC. And I haven't seen anyone do a crossword puzzle on their TV"—he takes a J.D. pause; perhaps the image of his columnist, Bill Gates, scrolls into view—"yet," he adds.

But he also lives comfortably with the fate of newspapering today. Since The Seattle Times handles the printing, ad sales, and circulating of the P-I under the joint operating agreement, Alexander doesn't have to worry much about new production technology or niche marketing. He concentrates instead on his newsroom's future, confessing to being a computer fan, avid PC user, and Internet surfer. His wife is a computer expert at Boeing (the couple lives in Magnolia and has a son who chefs at New York City's Gramercy Tavern) and when they're not off on weekend jaunts around the countryside—"I don't have hobbies," he snorts—they're talking newspapers and computers. "I love the new age of newspapering," says the man who has spent four decades in mostly unwired city rooms. "I think the electronics end is going to become a significant part of our business."

Yet even in the grip of an old-timer like Alexander, is something important slipping away here? Like fun? As recently as the 1960s you could find a P-I editorial writer pushing 10 pounds of copy paper out a second-floor window and running through the newsroom shouting, "It's snowing, it's snowing!" Today that might get you fired. Staffers now may be educated and papers might churn out higher-minded products. But is the granola-and-yogurt, purified newsroom of today—politically correct and tediously meddlesome in employees' conduct—the better for it? Or, more importantly, are readers better off?

"The zeitgeist clearly shifted since the days of Woodward and Bernstein," writes Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post's media critic, in Media Circus. "Success soon brought a new sense of caution and restraint ... Many newspapers took on an insurance-company atmosphere, with serious young people churning out serious stories as if they were legal briefs of product liability. The oddballs, louts and curmudgeons of yesterday became a dwindling presence."

To this point, Kurtz quotes Phil Gailey, editorial page editor of the St. Petersburg Ttmes: "Newspapers have gotten more homogeneous, filled with yuppies and vipers. There's no tolerance for people who get a little older or drink a little too much at lunch. These days most journalists are interested in getting on TV or writing books or both. The soul has gone out of the business."

A veteran P-I reporter fears that, despite having an old-school type as his editor, such a message has reached the increasingly bored newspaper reader. "It's hard to imagine that we once had a copy desk headed up by Darrell Bob Houston with Tom Robbins and David Waggoner on the [copy] rim," he says. "They were writers, poets, founts of mirth and talent." (One of Houston's memorable Vietnam-era headlines was, "Phnom Penh Phalls.") "That came through at your doorstep every morning. The P-I had a personality. Look at our front pages now. Gorton/Lowry/Locke/Murray/Rice stories. You don't expect anything else."

Can Alexander, who came from the rank and file, bring back some of that old time religion? The reporter has his doubts. "I think J.D.'s a tough, fair man. But there's not much imagination around here. Alexander may think the writing is good, I don't. We don't win writing contests anymore. We never soar. God, read our news columnists—the clichés! We've lost touch with everyone except those who call news conferences."

Other staffers disagree. One calls Alexander "a hell of a guy, for a publisher" and sees the paper as enterprising. Adds another: "I think that under J.D. and now under [Managing Editor Kenneth] Bunting, writing—literature, if you want—is making a comeback. We've gotten closer to the ground now. A well-written piece gets a lot of back pats in the newsroom."

One otherwise grumpy reporter commends Alexander for stepping up the paper's cultural coverage. That new emphasis, perhaps coincidentally, arrived about the time Alexander signed on as a member of the Corporate Council for the Arts, which doles out contributions to arts groups. Such line crossing can be a touchy matter in the newsroom, particularly since Alexander's predecessor, Fassio, was a legendary joiner who unabashedly promoted pet projects such as the Woodland Park Zoo in his news pages. By contrast, Alexander is a model of restraint, although it surely helps that he doesn't have to worry too much about courting or offending advertisers. "We love that," says a P-I reporter. "We sack an advertiser, and it's the Times' problem!"

To the extent that editors can be loved, and it's newsroom tradition to be cynical and underwhelmed by your leaders, Alexander gets positive marks from the minions. Still, four separate P-I staffers contacted for this story didn't feel free enough to speak candidly on the record. Maybe for good reason. As Alexander says, "People can speak to whoever they want, but I got to tell you, there's too much loose talk in this town among journalists. We have people going out and bragging how we're going to do this and do that, and, I think we ought to be competitive, yes, but people ought to be more loyal in that context. You have to have that, people have to be fundamentally proud of the product every day." He pauses. "But I sure as hell ain't against fun in the newsroom."

Alexander remains a mostly unseen presence in the news department. His routine 10-hour day includes giving "guidance" to departmental heads, rendering final approval to page one, making an occasional "adjustment" to an editorial, and usually taking lunch at his desk. He has worked to hire a more diversified newsroom. "The P-I's going to look like this community as fast as we can make it happen," he declares. He hired Ken Bunting, 45, from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and made him this city's first black daily newspaper managing editor. Did being black help Bunting's cause? "It didn't hurt," says Alexander. When he was in San Diego, he tried to hire Bunting when Bunting was in Cincinnati, and later when Bunting was at the Los Angeles Times. "His head's in the news 24 hours a day, he knows what works. He's talented. That's why I've been trying to hire him so long." Some suggest that another requirement for the job is a willingness to be relatively low profile and execute Alexander's wishes rather than emerge as a separate power. "He leaves the building, but his presence remains," says a half-joking reporter.

The editor/publisher also stepped out of the old P-I mold when he hired a new sports columnist, Laura Vecsey. Advantage, female? "Doesn't hurt," Alexander says again. "But she was the best qualified person I saw." The hiring of Vecsey, daughter of New York Times sports columnist George Vecsey, didn't draw praise from everyone. Another P-I sports scribe, Bud Withers, contending he was promised the column job Vecsey took last September from the now-retired John Owen, filed a federal sex-discrimination complaint. When that was dismissed for lack of evidence, Withers filed a civil suit in King County Superior Court, seeking damages and back pay. According to court papers, when Withers notified then-sports editor Tim Kelly that he wanted a shot at the Owen column slot, he learned "the P-I was interested in a woman filling the columnist position."

"Mr. Withers," the claim continues, "then asked the P-I publisher J.D. Alexander why Ms. Vecsey had been offered the job without Mr. Withers ever receiving even an interview. Mr. Alexander told Mr. Withers that Ms. Vecsey being female and the fact that the P-I had an all-male sports writing staff was an 'important factor' in the decision." The suit, not yet set for trial, "ain't a real great way to ingratiate yourself with your boss," says a fellow P-I sportswriter. But Alexander doesn't seem demonstrably ticked off. "Bud Winters is a quality journalist," Alexander observes. "That's not the issue. And he had the best assignment last year of any reporter in the building, covering the [NCAA] Final Four from beginning to end. But his lawsuit is without merit."

Yet if Alexander wants to turn the newsroom into a more diversified place—in the past it looked a lot like Ballard—he doesn't have plans to expand it. The 150-member staff is about 130 fewer than the Times', enough, apparently, for Alexander. "Do we need seven more columnists, 10 more columnists, 40 more people? Is it really going to do us any good? No," Alexander proclaims. "Those are things on a wish list, we talk about them. But I never believed—and this is the God's truth—that if only I had more money and more people that I could do it better. I am not persuaded that if I added 20 more legs on the street that this would necessarily be a better newspaper. This is a talented staff, they're producing a quality product. But I'm going to spend my time thinking about how to make the paper better, not how it might be better with more people."

One P-I writer says the comment doesn't surprise him. "We're rushed, we're understaffed, and getting more management-heavy. That's got to come from New York, keeping costs low and profit high. That's not news to anyone in the newsroom." Those are the economic practices that evolved from the joint operating agreement signed with the Seattle Times Co. in 1983. Under it, the Times sells ads for both papers, circulates them, prints them, and makes the marketing decisions. It divvies up the profits, sending the P-I roughly one third of the earnings. From that sum, Hearst takes its cut and pays its editorial employees, so the lower the newsroom costs the bigger the profits. The usual motivation for investing in editorial quality—it will boost circulation, leading to higher ad rates—is irrelevant here, since Hearst has no say in the business side.

Certainly, the newsroom rivalry with the Times continues, and rarely will one hear a word of praise by Alexander for his business partner (Times brass returns the favor). During his tenure Alexander has lost reporters Casey Corr, Duff Wilson, Lynne K. Varner, and columnist Jean Godden to raids by the Times. "Are we the worse for it? No," says Alexander. "Do I still think they're good journalists? Yes. I think Duff made a mistake. Casey probably didn't. Lynne made a mistake. But you're always going to lose folks. You just hire well the next round."

The Times, rubbing it in with a 1989 news story on the P-I's losses of Wilson and Corr, quoted a bitter Alexander: "In spite of [the Times'] much-ballyhooed penchant for searching all over the country for the best talent around, it was more than passing strange that two of the best talents they found were less than four miles away," he said. "You can add that I don't like to lose people to the Times. And two can play that game, you can also add that."

Alexander says a number of Times staffers have shown an interest to leave the state's largest paper (circulation 237,000) for the state's second-largest (209,000), but only one, editor/writer Dick Clever, has so far found his way down Denny Hill.

No matter, Alexander says, he's got the writers he needs. "Susan [Paynter] is irreverent, sometimes bitchy, sometimes tough minded; she's a wonderful columnist. Jon Hahn, he's marvelous, has an enormous following, a nose for a warm story, and he saves your bacon. [Columnist Hahn showed up to do some writing at 4:30 on a recent morn and found the water running in the third floor photo lab on Elliott Avenue, cascading down to the first floor. He stemmed the tide just as the P-I globe was about to go bobbing into Elliott Bay.] And Art Thiel? He's terrific. Of course, do I grind my teeth when any of them writes a wonderful column and then screws it up in the last two sentences? Hell yes!"

Not exactly the most admired part of Alexander's P-I is the editorial page, which hasn't drawn much attention from the boss until perhaps now. The newspaper has just sent editorial cartoonist/columnist David Horsey to Washington, D.C., for the upcoming political season; Alexander wants him to experiment further with the cartoonist-as-columnist notion for a year there. "The cartoon as metaphor, a drawing that crystallizes your message. We want to try that," the publisher says. "It's something new in this business." He adds: "I've never believed that the editorial page's mission is to persuade as much as it is to enlighten. The idea is to take a position that is uniquely ours, and to stimulate someone to read and react or whatever; people misunderstand that. And a compelling example of that misunderstanding is that people think David Horsey ought to have balance! His charge is to stimulate in a satirical, irreverent, and sometimes piercing way. It is never to pacify."

A Southern liberal who once wrote rah rah speeches for Air Force generals during a '60s tour of duty, Alexander describes himself as passionate about human rights and intolerant of governments that deceive. He says the newspapers' political focus and editorial views are much the same as his. "Liberal, yes, but pragmatic in the sense that you try to be a problem solver. I'm more of a centrist than a liberal, and more left than right. But I don't think my predilections drive us where we ought to be on issues. If it requires a conservative view, so be it; I don't want to be predictable. Some think we are, I don't."

He's not unfamiliar with complaints of the paper's unflagging editorial boosterism of the political and social establishment. "I've heard that criticism, I think there's less of that at the paper today," Alexander says, suggesting he may be the cause. "I read all the editorials, I discuss them. I haven't written one. And sure they know my view, generally. Is it fair for the publisher to require that those opinions and cartoons not stray appreciably from where he thinks the paper ought to be? Yes. If the editorial or the cartoon is off base, I say so, or I stop the cartoon, or I rewrite the editorial, adjust the editorial. But that's not a great matter of consternation or debate at the P-I."

Two reporters say there is consternation in the newsroom over the paper's news coverage of the planned new stadium for the Mariners, who threaten to flee Seattle if they aren't rewarded with new facilities. "The reporting angles are linked up with our editorial position, particularly in support of the Mariners," says one writer, citing news stories that painted the Mariners favorably but described the Seahawks' renovation bid as having "muddled" things up. Some Mariner news pieces tend to reflect a sudden urgency to funding a new stadium instead of sober reflection on what exactly voters might get for their money (although you could find acerbic assessments on the sports pages). "Sports and particularly the Mariners are a morning paper's bacon," a reporter notes.

Alexander says he doesn't try to steer coverage of any particular story. "I work hard to keep my hands off things," he insists. Not that he succeeds. "His fingerprints have been all over the P-I," says Gillenwater, the News-Tribune's publisher. Gillenwater, 48, is a Virginian who worked in North Carolina during Alexander's years there and worked under him as a stringer when Alexander was assistant national editor at The Washington Post. "I see J.D. as a real traditional editor and publisher who believes in very aggressive coverage of the news," Gillenwater observes. Their careers may be parallel—they compete now, just as they competed in the San Diego area before—but they play their roles differently. "The big difference is that here I have a business to run, and J.D. doesn't. The Seattle Times runs his business and he really functions as editor, as I'm sure he'll tell you. In my case, our executive editor reports to me but I'm not involved in the newsroom. I do sit in on editorial board meetings, but that's the general extent of my role there. J.D.—he's right there in the thick of everything."

That has its advantages, but it can also be intimidating; reporters may become overly cautious in their journalism and editors can be more reluctant to push for stories Alexander might not favor. An understaffed paper, as the P-I surely is, also limits the amount of time reporters can take away from breaking news (the normal emphasis of the morning paper) for enterprise stories, which give a paper its distinctive tone. Some staffers worry whether Alexander's fondness for political stories, while it gives the paper good coverage in that area, leads him to short­change other departments, particularly business and feature writing. "We're at our best covering breaking press conferences," quips a reporter.

Alexander's own agenda for reforms includes positioning his staff closer to the real world. Listening to readers and the local community is something today's newspapers have to get back to, he says. "In the '70s, I guess, journalists suddenly convinced themselves they had showed their biases by joining clubs, being members—of a church, going to meetings they weren't covering. They suddenly began to get out of the business of being citizens. With that, we took out of newspapers the wonderful sense and feeling we had for the community."

He admits to those shortcomings at his own paper (the P-I's lifeline to its readers, the ombudsman, is a telephone answering machine). "We're awfully inbred here, in the business, and when we quit interacting with our fundamental sources, everyday people, we all lost touch. We became journalists talking to other journalists. We stopped living in our own towns."

Alexander finishes his third Bombay, one an hour, and looks at his watch. "Time," he says, heading to the bar for the tab. He browses through a row of select scotches lined along the counter, and brightens when he spots a bottle of Highland Park. "Oh, this is fine stuff," Alexander says. But then he steps back and waves off the bartender's offer for "a touch." Mur the Blur looked puzzled. I had told him Alexander was a real newspaper guy. And here he was turning down a free drink. "I'm saving myself for the summer," Alexander says, moving toward the door. "A buddy and I are going to Scotland. On the Whisky Trail tour." He looks back. "We're going to drink our way from start to finish!" Murray beams, nodding in approval. "Journalism lives," he sighs.

randerson@seattleweekly.com

 
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