Last Paper Standing

There are many possible outcomes for the one-newspaper town.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is suing The Seattle Times over the joint operating agreement that allows the two papers to have what is in essence a legal monopoly in the city’s daily-newspaper market. The P-I wants the agreement to remain intact because they get to share the profits for doing nothing. The Times wants to void the agreement because there are no profits.

The Hearst Corp., the P-I’s owner, contends in a lawsuit filed Monday that the Times is managed like the Seattle School District. They claim that Times mismanagement perhaps was an intentional effort to trigger a clause that allows them to get out of the JOA after three consecutive years of losses. Apparently, losing money in a lousy economy is an act of bad faith. But the P-I would argue that you can’t expect to make money if you send staffers to cover the America’s Cupin New Zealand. (Mossback wonders: Would the Times have sent reporters to cover the war in Iraq if Craig McCaw had a boat in Baghdad?)

For its part, the Times says that it just can’t carry its burdens anymore, which include a very large staff, Mike Fancher’s column, and a fifth generation of hungry young Blethens. Plus, since the City Light debacle, it’s not cheap to keep the P-I globe spinning. The Times wants out of the JOA in order to gain a genuine monopoly, cut expenses, and return to the halcyon era of enormous profits squeezed from advertisers with few other options. From 1983-99, that apparently amounted to around $200 million. The P-I‘s take was somewhere around $50 million. (Mossback confession: Over that same period, by the way, Seattle Weekly was slightly more profitable than public KCTS-TV is today.)

But who cares about all this insider stuff? The real issue is: What will the daily-newspaper landscape look like down the road? We’re a city without Boeing, grunge, or an alternative to Starbucks. Will we soon have no more newspaper vitality thanshudderBellevue? Or, worse, Portland?

I see a number of possible scenarios:

Nothing But the Times: In this case, the Blethen-owned Times gets its way. No more JOA, no more P-I. Every morning on your porch is an insert and a coupon-packed paean to family ownership that somehow combines the worst of establishment stodginess with political correctness, occasionally wrapped with a Pulitzer-worthy package or another appeal to end the estate tax.

Hearst Hegemony: FCC Chair Michael Powell removes restrictions to cross-ownership. Corporate giant Hearst bleeds the Times, forces the Blethen family to sell, buys KOMO-TV and radio-station owner Fisher Communications, and creates a new TV- radio-newspaper empire that combines publishing “Boondocks” with broadcasting KVI hot talk. Steve Poole describes every weather pattern as “synergistic.”

One Big Paper: The two dailies find a way to combine resources into one papercall it, oh, the Seattle Union Record. The regular editors are sent on vacation, while the writers take over and run the combined paper as a feisty, provocative, well-written tabloid drawing on the best Times and P-I talents.

The Free Daily: The Internet makes it practically inevitable. Stop overcharging home subscribers for drop-it-in-your- driveway service. Take a page from the alt weeklies and goose circulation by going free (especially attractive to the Gen- Whatevers). Who cares if there’s only one paper if you don’t have to pay for it? (Mossback reminder: Just because you’re free doesn’t exempt you from antitrust law!)

Suburban Split: The JOA parties work out a compromise, dividing turf along the lines of their editorial-page slants. The more liberal P-I takes monorail country; the Times gets the SUV suburbs. Eastside, west side, every commuter is happy.

It Came From Long Island: Another suburban twista “second” daily emerges, à la Newsday, to challenge Seattle’s monopoly. It could be an edition produced by a regional newspaper consortium: Call it the Journal-News-Tribune-Herald. Or maybe the King County Journal steps in to bring us more fabricated front-porch journalism. (In the spirit of full disclosure, Mossback testifies that the Weekly once published an April Fool’s story that was a big lie, but we were morally inbounds because it made fun of Microsoft when it was still big and mean.)

Don’t Forget the Other Daily: Ripe for re-emergence is Seattle’s forgotten “third” daily, the Journal of Commerce. Here’s a chance to bring legal and construction-bid advertising to the masses. Shift to a tabloid format, add sports, crime, and columns by Tim Eyman and Pam Roach. Market to road ragers. Circulation soars.

The Allentown Times: Paul Allen cuts a deal, buys the Times for its valuable real- estate holdings. He renames the paper The South Lake Union Shopper and distributes it to tourists riding the “Fairview Fanny” trolley. A fitting fate for the paper that launched the whole Seattle Commons idea.

As the above demonstrates, Seattle is clearly a vital media market with many post-JOA options, some better than the present setup. Maybe one of the hundreds of newspaper execs who are in town this week will take note, and take pity.

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