Former exec claims Seattle Times secretly undermined P-I

by Bill Richards, Crosscut

A potential bombshell is buried in 3.5 million pages of documents and testimony collected for a winner-take-all arbitration between Seattle's two daily newspapers, which begins next week. In a deposition, a former Seattle Times Co. executive claims that Times officials in the mid-1990s secretly violated their joint operating agreement (JOA) with Hearst Corp., owner of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, using unfairly lopsided circulation spending to keep the Seattle Times' circulation lead over the P-I. Times executives then tricked Hearst into giving up their paper's exclusivity in the morning, the former executive claims. Since the joint operation began 1983, the P-I had been the morning paper and the bigger Times had the less-desirable afternoon publishing cycle. Today, of course, both are morning papers and the P-I is in a circulation death spiral.

The 122-page deposition by former Seattle Times Co. Vice President Stephen Sparks was given under oath to federal and state antitrust investigators in 2004. Sparks headed circulation for both the Times and the P-I under the JOA from 1993 to 1997. Speaking with Hearst attorneys under oath last November, he repeated the allegations. A copy of Sparks's earlier federal deposition was obtained by Crosscut.

Sparks' depositions are likely to be among the key documents under consideration when arbitrator Larry Jordan begins hearing the case behind closed doors on April 9. The retired Superior Court judge is expected to issue a non-appealable ruling on the Times-P-I dispute by the end of May. People familiar with the proceedings say both sides have mobilized double-digit teams of attorneys and investigators and are preparing to present Jordan with a massive case.

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