Hearst to P-I: Drop Half-Dead?

The confusing hypocrisy of Steve Swartz's newsroom performance keeps Hearst's intentions a mystery.

Some Seattle Post-Intelligencer old-timers might remember an editor named Nard Jones who, after a day composing sober editorials on weighty civic issues, went to an open window in his office at the P-I‘s then-headquarters in the Regrade, pushed a three-foot stack of manila paper into the wind over Sixth Avenue, and ran tippy-toe through the newsroom exclaiming “It’s snowing, it’s snowing!” Fifty years ago, this was the newspaper whose social and moral codes regularly required newsroom artists to doctor photographs, using the white strokes of an airbrush to slim down the fat ankles of society matrons or remove the balls from a German shepherd—a smoky newsroom of sob sisters and boozers where copyboys were sent to the bar across the street to fetch lunch for sportswriters: highballs in milkshake cartons.

It was different after the P-I packed up its globe and moved to a new building on the waterfront in 1986. Newspapers were evolving—less fun, but more respectful work. No more would a beleaguered reporter likely need to drop acid to get through the day. (The one who did in the old P-I newsroom said the idea backfired: “I kept seeing two city editors!”) Staffers were less likely to be fired subtly—returning from vacation, as one did, to find his desk gone. Fewer reporters would have to learn how chickenshit the paper could be. I learned that as a reporter there in the ’70s, when I walked into the police press room one day and introduced myself to reporter George McDowell. “You’re my what?” he kept saying. Nobody had thought to call and tell him he was being replaced after 30 years.

Yet, with the days of Front Page journalism long faded, what was more ridiculous and chickenshit than that scene in the P-I‘s Elliott Avenue newsroom last Friday? There in white shirt and tie was the paper’s undertaker, Steve Swartz, a president of Hearst Corp., telling a hushed staff that the 146-year-old P-I, and their jobs, had 60 days before he would begin burying them. The paper would be offered for sale, and if nobody bit, “we will have to pursue other options.” One was an all-digital operation of the P-I, he said. Another was a complete shutdown.

He was writing the P-I‘s own obituary. Or so it seemed. Straight answers—any answers—weren’t forthcoming. He stood with his arms folded and told the crowd of reporters and editors he had no further information about the plane crash they’d just experienced. “This is the beginning of the process,” Swartz said. “I can’t tell you what is going to happen, so I don’t think it’s appropriate to engage in speculation or a series of what-ifs. So I will not be taking questions at this time.”

Head of Hearst’s newspaper division for all of one month, Swartz revealed just how little he knew about how these places operate. Nothing makes their workers more willing to engage in speculation than a “no comment,” especially when followed by some confusing hypocrisy: The paper wasn’t good enough to publish anymore, but Swartz couldn’t contain his praise for it. “This is a great newspaper. The front pages you produce every day are lively and vibrant, and I like to think [founder] W. R. Hearst would be proud.” He lauded the investigative reporting, editorial pages, and columnists. But journalism is a business, he added. Losses are escalating—supposedly $14 million last year, though Hearst won’t open its books to prove it. The end is near, Swartz said, and “I will be back in touch [with] you at the appropriate time.”

The media reports that followed left the impression the P-I is dead. But the headline should read: Hearst to P-I: Drop Half-Dead. The point most discernible is that the newspaper will stop being a paper, though Swartz hedged even that: “We do not see ourselves publishing the P-I in printed form” after 60 days, he said. Well, does he see someone else publishing it? The conventional wisdom is that, as print media collapse beneath the weight of the Internet, no one will buy something that requires ink. But would anyone take it for free? That’s essentially what happened after Hearst bought the San Francisco Chronicle: In 2000, it handed over its former flagship SF Examiner along with its archives, 35 delivery trucks, and a $66 million subsidy, to the Fang family—in return for $100 cash. (The Fangs turned the Ex into a lively free tab, then sold it off). [This story has been corrected since it was first posted. It originally said that the Examiner had become online-only.]

And half-dead is still alive. The P-I has officially been a failing newspaper since the 1980s—when it struck a Joint Operating Agreement with the Times to have its paper published, marketed, and delivered by its rival. The likelihood in recent years that it would end up online-only has been seen not as a death but as a rebirth. Should anyone be too surprised the paper may finally be fulfilling its e-destiny? Swartz’s silence leaves a gap in understanding why a Web-only P-I is a viable alternative. Some think he had to dance around that point because of unsettled JOA issues with the Times (for example, will a merely electronic edition still be able to share ad revenue under the JOA?).

The Times faces a similar decision on keeping or revising its costly, shrinking print edition. But down the road the two papers could both live on, perhaps in a kind of electronic JOA, competing for news while continuing to share ads and their libraries. Hearst also could go it alone with some online variation—a mega–Web site fed by the P-I and e-content from its other papers. Either way, there’s no compelling reason for Hearst to dump the prized Seattle site.

Of course, it still means lots of newsroom goodbyes. Even living on as an e-paper, the P-I would cut as much as two-thirds of its 170 staffers, and likely retire its globe to a museum. That’s a heartbreak, and remindful of the scene that late P-I reporter John J. O’Ryan used to describe when the Seattle Star folded in 1947. He was a UPI reporter with an office in the same building. “They trashed the newsroom the last day, broken glass, whisky bottles all over,” he said. “They were really angry.” The eerie part, though, was the telephones. They were still ringing. “No newspaper,” O’Ryan said. “But lots of news.”