Five years ago, The Seattle Times celebrated its 100th birthday by repainting a large portion of its delivery fleet with 100th anniversary colors. Among the first to notice this centennial makeover was its joint operating partner, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which apparently preferred the trucks’ former side inscription, “Seattle Times/P-I.”
So goes the testy relationship between the two Seattle dailies, which were conjoined in a permanent big brother/little brother relationship by the signing of a 1983 joint operating agreement. And the Times likes being big brother. It has the city’s only Sunday paper, more Pulitzer Prizes, around 300 newsroom workers to the P-I’s 160, and a full century of ownership by the Blethen family, making it a rare family-owned daily in an increasingly chain-dominated business.
Now the Times is stuck with a prize it doesn’t want: the largest share of the rancor resulting from the 49-day strike by the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild— settled Monday after workers approved a new contract by a 359-116 vote. Some of the damage stems from the company’s dominant role: The Times handles all advertising and circulation duties for both papers, so its employees comprise the vast majority of the 1,000 strikers and almost all of the union’s lowest-paid workers.
The Times‘ immediate challenge is to dispel those ill feelings and restore its luster as Washington’s best daily newspaper. This task is by no means academic; the very survival of the Times is at stake. When it became a morning paper last year, analysts predicted Seattle would eventually become a one-daily-newspaper town. Many assumed that the Times would win the battle of the dailies, but now that the paper has lost millions of dollars, had its reputation in the community as a fine family employer tarnished, and faces ongoing major internal strife, its victory is no longer a sure thing.
The company brought part of the damage upon itself. The Times can act as if it holds the copyright on the word “family”—Executive Editor Mike Fancher’s first column during the strike began with the phrase “This feels like a death in the family.” Although Guild officials wisely cautioned strikers against taking personal shots, signs mocking the company’s “family” values started appearing on picket lines after President H. Mason Sizemore outlined plans to lay off some 1-in-10 family members, er, workers, just a month into the strike. The Times, not the P-I, was the target of several unfair labor practice complaints by the union.
At the P-I, absentee ownership became an advantage. Although both papers denied the union claim that worker pay has lagged behind inflation, P-I publisher Roger Oglesby’s full-page letters to the public were low-key and somehow corporate in a good way.
The P-I has had good reason to practice its PR. A significant share of the newspaper-buying public believes the claim that the family-owned and Pulitzer committee-anointed Times is the better of the two rival rags. And the Times‘ own writers and editors have always displayed fondness for this concept. One Times scribe recalls higher-ups bristling when someone compared how the two papers covered the same political issue. The Times, writers were told, aims for an ideal far beyond anything the P-I could ever strive for. Wait, the reporter thought, aren’t we both putting out daily newspapers?
The competition knows the score. The Times was nicknamed “Fairview Fannie” decades ago because the serious, gray paper seemed a dour dowager in contrast to the down-to-earth P-I. On the occasion of the Times‘ recent conversion to a morning publication, P-I editorial cartoonist David Horsey updated the image by depicting “Fannie” as a mirror-gazing beauty celebrating the fact that now she’d have all day to tell people how wonderful she is.
But beyond the occasional ego excesses, there’s plenty of evidence that the state’s largest and most self-absorbed daily newspaper is also its best. Over the years, the Times has earned a reputation for having a reporter-friendly newsroom and an at-times excessive love for in-depth feature stories and special projects. They’ve also routinely cherry-picked the P-I‘s best employees. Sure, some angry Times reporters may have inquired about jobs at the P-I during the strike, but reversing this talent flow on a long-term basis is as unlikely as reversing the flow of the Columbia River.
So it’s worth asking: How does the Times get its swagger back?
“You just asked the question that we all want the answer to,” says Elizabeth Rhodes, a 22-year Times veteran who writes a Sunday real estate column. Everyone returning to work is hoping things will get back to normal, she says. “What we’re all feeling now is we don’t know what normal is.”
Executive Editor Fancher says the paper can’t look back. “Rebuilding isn’t the right word,” he says. “That suggests we’re going back to something—we need to create a new newspaper with the resources available to us.”
This sounds like a nice way of saying things will never be the same again, but however you put it, he’s got a point. Some immediate employee turnover is expected, even required. The strike settlement includes programs to encourage early retirement and provide severance pay for employees who decide to move on. Given the company’s estimate that 10 percent of its workers need to be cut through attrition, that’s a lot of people going out the door in a short period.
And there’s a reason strikes hit the editorial departments of newspapers especially hard. Journalists are an insular group. Other writers and editors often form a large part of their circle of friends; journalist/ journalist marriages are common. One of the more impassioned speeches during a strike vote came from a longtime reporter whose most pressing concern was that many of her friends were considering leaving the paper.
At The Seattle Times, this makes for people taking things personally on all sides. Many strikers were upset that the letter they received warning of their impending replacement during the strike was signed by a group of assistant managing editors rather than top dogs Sizemore and Blethen. However, it’s likely there was an equal amount of emotion on the other side; the signatures were probably meant as a statement of personal support for the newspaper’s management.
Guild spokesman Ron Judd, a Times columnist, says it’s inevitable that some animosity will be in the air. “The interpersonal relationships will be tough,” he says. “That’s a fact of life in a strike.”
But there is life both after the strike and after The Seattle Times. While strikes often can lead to significant, sudden changes in people’s lives, some newspaper walkout veterans say those changes are often for the better. Larry Gabriel, a former Detroit Free Press feature writer (and striker) who now edits that city’s Metro Times alternative weekly, says many of his onetime colleagues tried other lines of work or returned to school. “For some people, it freed them to explore other areas of their life, rather than tied them to this check,” he says (see “Striking lessons,” page 21).
The Seattle newspaper strike is likely to be a onetime affair. Just three decades ago, a couple dozen newspapers might have had strikes in a single year. In the shadow of the destructive five-year-long Detroit News/ Detroit Free Press strike, newspaper work stoppages have grown increasingly rare. “Are strikes feasible? Not in the way they used to be,” says Gabriel. “You have to come up with new techniques.” Advances in layout and printing technology and the lack of coordination among unions means strikers can no longer stop the production of papers, formerly the test of a successful strike. Trying to sway corporations by marshalling public opinion won’t do it, either. “You cannot embarrass the capitalists,” he says sadly. “If they’re making money, everything else doesn’t matter much.”
Given the strike-related losses claimed by the Times, though, it’s likely the company may dig a little deeper in the piggy bank six years from now when the just-approved contract expires.
Fancher thinks his best ally in reuniting the newsroom is the common devotion to the newspaper. “The focus needs to be on the content of the newspaper and its role in the community,” he says. “We have to acknowledge that this has been painful for everybody and frustrating for everybody and people will come back with mixed emotions, but we have a job to do.”
He’ll be aided in this job by the stoic, businesslike nature of the Times corporate culture—where the Ron Covey book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People functions as the management bible. Says one longtime staffer, “Anger is not a thing that has been visibly displayed at The Seattle Times.”
But can the Times regain its pre-strike spirit? Perhaps. When asked if he’s contacted his crosstown rival newspaper about how it handled the back-to-work transition, Fancher chuckles.
“I don’t usually consult with the P-I,” he replies.
Hey, that isn’t a bad start.
|What they wanted||What they got|
|$3.25 hourly increase over three years||$3.30 hourly increase over six years|
|End of two-tiered pay for suburban reporters||Phaseout of system over three years|
|Match for employee 401(k) contribution||No company match|
|Layoffs by seniority only||Layoffs by seniority only|
|Higher pay for lowest-paid employees||Higher pay grades for some|
|Limit on commission-only pay for ad reps||Commission-only reps capped at 25|
|Larger company contribution to health care||Increase in share to 75% from 66%|
Guild negotiators also turned back company proposals to increase the percentage of nonrepresented employees in the bargaining unit from 10 percent to 20 percent, and to prohibit Guild employees from honoring the picket lines of Teamsters Local 174 (which honored the Guild picket lines).
The Guild agreed to drop charges of unfair labor practices filed during the strike.