By the look of things, Seattle is about to become, at best, a one-newspaper town. Unfortunately for Art Thiel, his isn’t the one. “I think I could be a pretty good pool boy for a wealthy widow,” says the wisecracking Seattle Post-Intelligencer sports columnist, starting to riff on his future if the P-I is shuttered by the Hearst Corporation in mid-March. “I was also thinking of a career teaching English for English Speakers. Spell-checker aside, I get stupefying e-mail from doctors, professors, government officials, and I say ‘My gosh, I could help these people!'”
The star columnist, with 28 years at the P-I, is slapping a smiley face on an otherwise grim portrait. But, he says, “Anybody who has to go through a job thing like this, you finally get done cursing all the forces. You realize this just may be the change you needed, even if you don’t know what you’re suited for. I just wish I would have taken a woodshop class in high school.”
Thiel’s future shock arrived the morning of Black Friday, January 9, when Hearst Newspapers president Steven R. Swartz showed up at the paper’s headquarters at 101 Elliott Avenue West. He had flown in from New York, called the newsroom to prayer service, and confirmed what KING-TV had already reported, scooping the P-I on its own demise. The 146-year-old paper Hearst bought in 1921 was for sale, and without a buyer in 60 days would either close or continue as an online-only electronic newspaper, whether under Hearst or a new owner who had the money and moxie.
The P-I is already previewing what an e-P-I might look like after its home page last week began linking to other local blogs and media sites that previously would have been considered competitors. The paper’s historical motto, “It’s in the P-I,” no longer refers just to its staff’s own reporting.
Hearst, said Swartz, was also ending its pursuit of the Seattle Times, which has its own debt problems and could eliminate at least some of its daily print editions. The Times cut almost 500 employees last year and still may not make it, according to publisher Frank Blethen. He was in Olympia last week, asking legislators for a business tax break for newspapers, saying the state’s publishers are “literally holding on by our fingertips today.”
Liz Brown, administrative officer of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild—which represents P-I and Times circulation, advertising, and news employees—sees a risk that Seattle will become a no-daily-newspaper town. “Is the Times upside down, financially? Yes,” she says. Blethen has asked his downsized staff to approve an equivalent 12 percent cut in pay and benefits, plus a pension freeze. When the Guild asked to see the Times‘ books, “they answered yes,” Brown says. “When that happens, it’s bad.” A financial review is being scheduled.
The larger Times won’t have the weaker P-I to kick around as a partner, either. Swartz told the P-I staff that Hearst was exiting its 1983 Joint Operating Agreement (JOA) with the Times. That will end the P-I‘s 40–60 split of profits (or losses) after the Times subtracts costs of handling the P-I‘s advertising, production, marketing, and circulation.
Though the papers have been news rivals with separate staffs, the Times has had some control over the P-I‘s future for three decades. It tightened that grip on March 6, 2000, when the evening Times, under a rewritten JOA, converted to morning publication and went head-to-head with its rival and partner. Though a revised JOA allowed the P-I to post more editorial content on its Web site, the Times newsroom saw it as something of a knockout punch. In a 1999 staff memo in advance of the morning conversion, then-Times managing editor Alex MacLeod declared that “Hearst has consistently starved its papers while pocketing big profits,” and has now “sold the P-I‘s future without a serious second thought.”
With his fat budget and dominant newsroom (about 320 editorial staffers to the P-I‘s 170), MacLeod could smother the P-I, and did. On the day the morning switch was made, the Times had a daily circulation of 219,000 to the P-I‘s 191,000. By March 2007, the Times circulation was unchanged, while the P-I had plummeted to 128,000. Today, after the Times cut distribution of both papers, the Times has dropped to 199,000 and the P-I has faded to 114,000.
The new JOA has turned out to add injury to Frank Blethen’s insult: infamously showing up in his newsroom on the day of the morning changeover wearing a T-shirt depicting the eagle from the Times’ logo destroying the P-I‘s globe with its claws. P-I staffers are now aware of the coming final indignity: The Times will soon begin delivering its paper to P-I subscribers, asking them to cross over—though it might be a tough sale.
“P-I readers are rabidly brand loyal,” says the Guild’s Brown. “Our members in circulation say that, 2-to-1, they get more complaints from P-I subscribers who get the Times by mistake than vice-versa.”
There was always a natural newsroom rivalry with the Times. But some P-I staffers clearly loathe Blethen and his managers, who’ve long belittled the “smaller paper.” Cheers sounded in the P-I‘s newsroom in 2007 after Blethen blinked in a long court battle with the P-I to end the JOA, and instead had to hand over $24 million to keep the agreement going. But mere rejoicing wasn’t enough: That night, a carload of P-I employees pulled up outside the Times headquarters, piled out, unzipped, and pissed warm revenge on Frank’s front lawn.
It was good while it lasted. But it may be a matter of who pisses last.
When Hearst exec Swartz addressed the newsroom gathering, it was the P-I‘s owner making Blethen’s T-shirt dream come true. “I can’t tell you what is going to happen,” said Swartz, a youthful 46, in shirtsleeves, talking into an office microphone. “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.”
When he walked out, a cone of silence descended; he’d just given a roomful of reporters a “no comment” on their futures. “We have no news to report,” Hearst spokesperson Lisa Bagley reiterated last week, “following our January 9 statement.”
All things considered, says P-I crime reporter Hector Castro, “I think there are people here more inclined to send Frank Blethen a Christmas card than send one to a Hearst executive.” As he looked around the newsroom last week, Castro saw a preview of what’s to come: a whole lot of empty desks. “There’s a slow, growing demoralization,” Castro says. “A few have left for other jobs. Some are using their sick days and vacation time on the assumption the paper is closing soon. And there are others like me, struggling to come in each day and work through the day. It’s just not much fun.”
For Castro and others, Swartz is the prince of darkness, even if he was a reporter and Page 1 editor at the Wall Street Journal for eight years. He became editor of Hearst’s Smart Money magazine in 1992, and was promoted to a corporate vice-presidency in 2001. He specialized in developing marketing alliances for Hearst, including a partnership with the online real-estate firm Zillow and a majority investment in Metrix4Media, an online advertising service for newspapers. New media innovation was his forte, not dead-tree newspapers.
Recently, Hearst headquarters issued a chain-wide investigative series on the Boy Scouts of America, detailing the wholesome organization’s sideline business of clear-cutting the nation’s forests for timber profits. The series, spearheaded by the P-I‘s Lewis Kamb, seemed to indicate that Hearst was showing a new interest in investigative journalism; some wondered if newcomer Swartz might create a permanent chain-wide I-team.
But it turns out the Boy Scouts story was in the works and nearing completion before Swartz took command in New York, says a P-I staffer who asked not to be named. Swartz’s arrival more likely means the end of such efforts, she says, recalling a top P-I editor telling her “Swartz has no interest in that sort of journalism.” (To this, Hearst spokesperson Bagley says “Hearst Newspapers is continuing its investigative series.”)
On December 17, in his second week as the company’s newspaper chief, Swartz instituted Hearst’s “100 Days of Change” initiative, a three-month corporate blitz to cut both fat and bone, promote new leadership, and pull the chain out of the industry-wide tailspin. “We believe in the future of newspapers—in print and online,” Swartz said in a separate announcement. But evidently not in the future of all its papers—a point he underscored when he arrived with the P-I‘s death notice.
Where was “change” when the P-I needed it? “The P-I really didn’t have much that distinguished it from the Times,” says Doug Underwood, a University of Washington journalism professor and former Times reporter. “I always read both papers every day, religiously, and there were many days when they looked and read so much alike that I couldn’t remember when I’d missed one for a day.”
Swartz feels the P-I is beyond repair. “Losses have reached an unacceptable level,” he said in a news release. The paper was in the hole by $14 million in 2008, he claimed, with bigger losses forecast for 2009. That’s a dilemma at some of Hearst’s other big papers too, such as the San Francisco Chronicle, which last year was also reported to be losing more than $1 million a month. (The P-I and Chronicle are among 16 daily and 49 weekly papers owned by the privately-held conglomerate. It also operates 29 TV stations and publishes nearly 200 magazines, including Cosmopolitan and Good Housekeeping).
Today, with no buyer emerging, the last call of “stop the presses” looms March 18, the best guesstimate displayed on a white-board calendar in the P-I newsroom. When the final day arrives, most if not all staff will hit the bricks. An online edition could be handled by a comparative handful, says the Guild’s Brown, who scheduled a meeting of P-I employees for this week to talk about possible last-minute efforts to save the paper, including a fledgling employee-ownership bid.
“No one has any illusion that a big number of jobs will be provided if Hearst goes online,” says Brown.
Mike Davidson, CEO of Newsvine, the popular Seattle-based online news aggregator, figures the P-I could run the site with 15 to 20 employees: eight full-time writers, three engineers, a managing editor, a designer, and a small office and sales crew.”The rest of the content should be sourced through local freelancers and volunteers via a revenue-sharing agreement if necessary,” Davidson says.
Adding to the angst about the P-I‘s future is Hearst’s silence about its present. “We just sort of have to piece rumors together ourselves,” says Castro.
Among the questions: If there is an online edition, who among them will staff it? Under a severance agreement with Hearst, all employees will get departure pay except those who stay with an online P-I, says Brown. But, she adds, “I can’t find a single P-I employee who has been asked to stay.” A dozen P-I staffers interviewed for this story said likewise, including Joe Tartakoff, a business writer who writes a popular blog about Microsoft.
“Nobody has contacted me,” says Tartakoff, who would seem a likely candidate for an e-P-I, considering he’s all of 23 and was hired just five months ago.
But John Marshall, the P-I‘s book editor, who expects his 26 years at the paper to end abruptly next month, says online readers could be as disappointed as newspaper subscribers. With the P-I print demise and staff dismissals, Marshall predicts, “the [online] version will be just a bare-bones version of what you see today.”
According to Nielsen, the P-I Web site ranks 17th among U.S. newspaper sites, with more than 2.5 million unique monthly visitors (the P-I says that’s a lowball figure), while the Times is 22nd with just under 2 million.
Michelle Nicolosi, the P-I‘s assistant managing editor for new media, declined to discuss any future plans. But Swartz didn’t come to the P-I with any apparent blueprint; it wasn’t until he’d left the building that publisher Roger Oglesby sent around a memo asking staffers for suggestions for a revised Web site.
“The most likely scenario, in my opinion, is that Hearst won’t have a Web site on March 19, or whenever they stop the presses,” says Chuck Taylor, former Seattle Weekly managing editor and co-creator of Crosscut.com, who has also worked at the Times. “If they do decide to stay in the Seattle market, they’d more likely go dark for awhile and launch something completely new and different on seattlepi.com.”
The Guild’s Brown doesn’t think it makes sense to go dark for any length and lose readers. But she says that restarting as a new entity might allow Hearst to escape the JOA. “Under the agreement,” she says, “if one of the partners defaults, that starts a 90-day process to terminate the JOA.” It’s possible the Times and P-I have already quietly reached an understanding, she suspects.
There is a sort of electronic JOA in effect as well: The Times currently hosts the P-I‘s Web site. Brown and others are uncertain if that relationship might continue in some way.
Hearst, again, isn’t saying anything specific, including how much it’s asking for the P-I. Only pre-qualified buyers—show your wad at the door—are let in on the inventory of a package deal that includes a failing paper, a successful Web site, and everything from office chairs to the steroidal P-I globe atop the paper’s leased offices overlooking Elliott Bay.
Hearst won’t sell the prized icon separately. Maybe it’s hoping someone will buy the paper to get the globe.
All of which leaves the Elliott Avenue pulp-mill workers looking for an upside in a downturn. Those who are shown the P-I‘s glass door will have a little breathing room at first, with severance pay (two weeks for each year of service, with a four-week minimum), temporary medical coverage, and unemployment checks. Then, theoretically, it’s off to other jobs, maybe new careers.
The P-I is one of many U.S. newspapers undergoing consolidation, conversion, or extinction as readers have flocked to the Internet for its ease, interactivity, and lack of cover charge. Like the P-I, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News is set to close if no one buys it, the Miami Herald is on the block, and the Minneapolis Star Tribune is restructuring its debt, to name a few. Freedom of the press now belongs only to those who can afford one.
“What is remarkable,” says the UW’s Underwood, “is that there is not a city in the country where this isn’t happening. I don’t know if that is a commentary upon the deterministic grip of history and technology, or whether the business was so stultified that it couldn’t produce a single example of a newspaper that was so compelling that its market wouldn’t let it die.”
“I’ve said before that local newspapers are basically communities of people who don’t talk to each other,” says Newsvine CEO Davidson. “Craigslist works because it takes nearby people and creates value for each of them by producing a transaction. The historical value created by newspapers has largely been a more personal one.You read a newspaper to stay personally informed. Unfortunately, however, no one is willing to pay to stay informed anymore. There’s just too much free information out there.”
Cutbacks are now standard operating procedure in daily journalism, with a corresponding reduction in coverage and information. The Times reports that 10 journalists from around the state are covering the legislature full-time this year, compared to 17 two years ago and 34 in 1993.
“Everybody here’s got a different level of anxiety,” says the P-I‘s Thiel. “Some have kids in college, others have them in diapers; some started mortgages, some are finishing them. It depends on age and circumstance, but the feeling among some is of betrayal, others are exhausted, and some are really enthusiastic about getting the severance check and getting off to something different.”
And they all know it’ll be a different world after March. “This is probably going to be my last journalism job,” says the 45-year-old Castro, who’s been in the biz for two decades. “Journalism is evolving, and while I don’t think papers will be gone entirely, big-city newspapers are shrinking remarkably, and that’s where I like to work. I’m just getting shoved out of the market.” One of the reasons he came to the P-I in 2000, he says, “is I wanted to work in a city with competing newspapers, and Seattle was rare even then.” He sighs. “It was fun.”
Conversely, 57-year-old Pulitzer-winning cartoonist David Horsey should land softly. “I think I have a future with Hearst. I just don’t know where,” says Horsey, a 29-year P-I veteran. “Like some others, right now I’m taking this as an opportunity to see what I want to do next. If there’s an online P-I, I hope to be part of it.”
Surely, if not at an online P-I, there’s employment elsewhere for metro columnist Robert Jamieson Jr., long-form writer Carol Smith, and Pulitzer-winning investigator Eric Nalder, among others. “I’ve been on this ship long enough that I’ll stay with it and try to keep it afloat,” says political columnist Joel Connelly, 61, a P-I writer since 1973. “If she sinks and I’m set free, I will go off to [his cabin on] Whidbey [Island] and think about an outlet for my work.”
Like late P-I writer Rolf Stromberg, who decades back was given a clear hint his services were no longer wanted when he returned from vacation to find his desk gone, Connelly worries he’ll come back from his days off and find the newspaper missing. “I’m headed off to vacation to [Mariners] spring training in Arizona, March 12–17. The most likely D-Day for the P-I appears now to be March 18. I have a premonition of coming back and being greeted at the door by a line of guys who look like they work out a lot.”
But there’s still hope, says P-I managing editor David McCumber. “There’s this silence because there’s still a chance of a sale,” he insists. And McCumber is trying to make it happen, zipping around in search of fat cats with a publishing itch.
One of his first stops was the office of Bill Gates Sr., setting off rumors that Gates, his son, or the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation might somehow keep the P-I rolling off the presses. After all, the foundation was among a group of investors which in 2006 lent $350 million to newspaper chain MediaNews Group to buy more newspapers in the Bay Area, a deal that also involved papers owned by Hearst that were then handed over to MediaNews in return for a share of the Denver-based company. (Hearst now has an interest in 43 daily and 72 non-daily newspapers owned by MediaNews).
But the Gates session wasn’t a sales pitch, says McCumber: “It was just a meeting for advice on who I should talk to, not an effort to get Gates interested.” A foundation spokesperson had no comment. Paul Allen, Seattle’s other Microsoft co-founding billionaire, also has invested in newspapers—he bought The Sporting News for $100 million in 2000 and reportedly sold it for half that six years later—but isn’t interested in the P-I. “At this point,” says Allen spokesperson David Postman, a veteran political reporter who left the Times just a few months back, “we’re not looking to make any investments in the papers, whether to buy or transform.”
McCumber’s challenge in part is to convince a buyer that the P-I has a future based on its past. That asset may not be marketable, even on Craigslist. But it is a valuable history, rich in stories by and about the P-I, where such writers and novelists as Frank Herbert, Tom Robbins, and Tim Egan worked. The paper at one time seemed to attract many of its applicants from bars and locked wards. Among many who haunted its hallways were Ralph Rumlin, a page-makeup editor who for years wore a raincoat completely ripped up the back; news editor Pat Page, known for taking a revolver from his desk and spinning the chamber when stories were late; reporter James C. Lewis, who invited an irate Pacific Northwest Bell executive over for dinner supposedly to make up for misreporting he wore $300 suits, then served him a baked telephone from the oven; and Bob Ward, a cops reporter who once stole a police car and rode around town whistling at women and dogs over the vehicle’s loudspeaker. Ward got drinks and pats on the back for something that would get a reporter fired and jailed today.
Readers are now chiming in about what they remember, and will miss the most, on an interactive “P-I Memories” site the paper has just set up. Unfortunately, it’s mostly about days past and columnists dead.
“The P-I always meant to me Emmett Watson and the Lesser Seattle society (its motto: ‘Be rude to a tourist’),” wrote one reader. Actually, the motto was “Keep the Bastards Out.” And Watson, for all his years at the P-I, ultimately got bounced and returned to the paper he’d previously worked for: the Times.
Still, if newspapers are dying, they’re also experimenting. Technology, innovative publishers, and the evolution of readers raised on the Internet will decide how long the daily newspaper lives on. But the shift has already begun to electronic editions.
Taylor, the Crosscut co-founder (he’s since left the online news entity), says that if Hearst goes to an online-only edition here, “It should be local, first and foremost.” Newsvine’s Davidson seconds that. “It’s time to give up on the idea that people are going to turn to the Seattle Times or the Seattle P-I for their national news diet,” he says. “That’s what msnbc.com and a host of other sites are for.”
“My sense,” says Horsey, “is that Hearst is exploring this as an opportunity to jump into the new world of news. Seattlepi.com has been really successful, and a good base to try to create an online publication that really works.”
Connelly eagerly awaits that. “I hope Hearst gives it a chance, and makes it the paper of the future.”
Which still leaves today.
“I just talked to Jim and Lou Whittaker,” Art Thiel says of the twin mountaineering legends who were about to attend their 80th birthday party at the Space Needle the other day. “There’s two lives well-lived. The P-I situation is always on your mind, and it comes up in conversations. But I kind of thought, ‘I’m not going to piss and moan about this situation, not to these guys.’ Scary, losing your job? No, scary is staring into a crevasse with your rope-mates dangling below you and all your lives hanging in the balance.”
“Whatever happens, it’s all going to be different,” he continues. “I’m not saying it’s going to be better; I can’t be sure. But there’s the freshness of a new gig, new people, new ways of looking at things. It’s kind of cool in that sense.”
And there will be that going-out-of-business party.
“Maybe at the Ballard Elks,” Thiel says. “The damage deposit could run into the millions.”
Editor’s Note: Rick Anderson wrote a news column for the P-I from 1971 to 1977, and for the Times from 1977 to 1990.