P-I's closure in Seattle would reflect U.S. trend

by Eric Pryne, Seattle Times

The Cincinnati Post: 1881-2007.

The Albuquerque Tribune: 1922-2008.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer: 1863-2009?

If Seattle's oldest newspaper stops publishing this spring — a strong possibility after owner Hearst announced Friday that the P-I is for sale — it will join a long list of American papers that have fallen victim in recent years to changing habits, economics and technology.

Nearly 200 dailies have expired since 1990. And, in almost every instance, their deaths have touched off civic mourning that suggests a shuttered newspaper is more than just another failed business.

In Seattle, the grieving already has begun. "This is a civic crisis," said Anne Bremner, co-chair of the Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town, a group that formed six years ago when a legal battle with the rival Seattle Times threatened the P-I's future.

At their best, newspapers serve as community watchdogs, mirrors, forums. "No one doubts their value in our democracy," Mayor Greg Nickels said Friday.

That value is enhanced, many say, when a city is served by two or more newspapers, not just one. That's why the P-I's likely demise is so troubling.

"Competition improves the quality of journalism," said Kathy George, the two-newspaper committee's attorney and a former P-I reporter and editor. "If you lose that, there's going to be less incentive to break important stories and to be aggressive watchdogs."

Don't count on bloggers or talk radio to fill the gap, said former state Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge, another committee leader: They mostly talk about what's in the newspapers.

But two-newspaper towns are disappearing fast. Markets larger than Seattle — Dallas, Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix — have had just one daily for years.

Seattle, too, almost certainly would have become a one-newspaper town decades ago, but for a revenue-sharing joint-operating agreement (JOA) that allowed the failing P-I to hand over printing, advertising, circulation and other business functions to the larger Times.

But neither Seattle paper has turned a profit since 2000. And metropolitan dailies across the country are hurting, their advertising revenues sinking as competition from the Internet intensifies and the economy tanks.

Perhaps, some argue, a community is better served by one newspaper with at least a shot at economic success than by two competing papers plummeting toward financial oblivion.

"There's a trade-off," said Rick Edmonds, media-business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in St. Petersburg, Fla. "There's a sense that it's good for the readers if you've got two papers slugging it out. But there's also a certain amount of duplication, to some extent ...

"If The Seattle Times ends up as the only paper in town, it's possible it will be a stronger paper that covers more."

Unlikely to be buyer

Hearst executives said Friday the P-I, which employs 170, would be marketed for 60 days. If no buyer emerges, they said, the paper would close or it might survive with a much smaller staff as an online-only publication. No matter the outcome, under no circumstances would Hearst continue to publish it in print, they said.

The executives said they were hopeful a new owner with a different business model would surface, but industry experts said that's highly unlikely.

Buying a daily newspaper in the current market is "like buying an anchor that's already been thrown overboard," Wayne State University journalism director Ben Burns told The Denver Post last month.

Some already were speaking of the P-I in the past tense Friday, and reflecting on the ramifications of its demise for the city it has served for more than a century.

"I'm very upset about it," said P-I Managing Editor David McCumber. "I think you [The Times] were better because of us, and we were great, in part, because of you, and the people of Seattle were beneficiaries."

Times Executive Editor David Boardman said he took no joy in the P-I's likely closure.

"But we've also recognized for many years that this community can only support one daily paper," he said in a statement, "and this gives us a fighting chance for survival in the toughest of times. If we can make this work — and that remains a big 'if' — our community will be better served by one healthy newspaper than by two struggling ones."

JOA contested

The Seattle dailies waged a long, expensive legal fight that began in 2003 when The Times, arguing the JOA was no longer economically viable, moved to trigger an escape clause that could have led to the P-I closure.

Hearst sued, charging, among other things, that the larger Times had worked for years to sabotage the P-I rather than acting in its best interests, as the JOA contract requires.

The companies settled in 2007, but the economic status of both remained shaky. David Brewster, publisher of the online-news site Crosscut, said that, while news of the P-I's demise was sad, it could also be a relief to have the newspaper war finally settled.

"This has been hanging over Seattle journalism and public life for way too long," he said. "It's good to resolve that and say, 'Here is the new landscape,' and like most cities you have one good, dominant daily and then make sure you have a lot of other voices."

Industry observers agreed The Times will benefit financially if the P-I shuts down. "It's cheaper to publish one newspaper than two," said John Morton, a newspaper analyst in Silver Spring, Md.

But he and others said that, because the industry landscape has changed so dramatically, the death of its competitor won't in itself put The Times on the path to profitability.

Long-term benefits?

Like many papers, The Times is in deep trouble. To cut costs in the face of declining ad revenue, it has eliminated sections and shed about 400 positions through layoffs, buyouts and attrition over the past year.

The parent Seattle Times Co. has put some of its South Lake Union real estate and its newspapers in Maine up for sale to raise capital to pay down debt. Tentative deals were killed or delayed last fall when the credit crunch hit, Times executives said in a year-end e-mail to employees.

Media economist and consultant Robert Picard said in an e-mail that the revenue The Times would gain from a P-I shutdown "will not be strong enough to end the effects of the current economic downturn."

When the economy improves, though, "some longer-term benefits will be felt," he added.

Before the JOA legal fight with Hearst began in 2003, Times officials calculated that closure of the P-I could increase The Times' pretax earnings by 40 percent in the first year, according to internal documents later made public.

They also assumed The Times would capture 75 percent of the P-I's weekday circulation, then more than 150,000. Since then it has declined to about 117,000.

"The license to print money that previously existed in one-newspaper towns is over, so [Times Publisher] Frank Blethen won't be getting rich off the change," Picard wrote.

"However, he will certainly sleep easier at night."

article originally published at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/localnews/2008614615_pisale11.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey