The future of journalism in Seattle, part 1

The notion that the newspaper industry is in trouble has achieved truism status over the last couple of years. (Since this is the first time I've written about this in a while, I'm going to go into dark-cloud, ask-not-for-whom-the-bell-tolls mode for a moment. Feel free to skip the first 3 paragraphs if you've heard it all before.) The industry has taken an undeniable hit from the migration of classified ads online, as well as from gradually decreasing circulation figures, as news consumers replace faster and more configurable online news sources over older dead-tree delivery systems.

Less acknowledged is the role media consolidation has played in newspaper owners' widely-publicized woes. Corporate owners, such as Tribune, Hollinger, CanWest and others, expanded newspaper holdings by accepting high levels of debt--and demand higher profit margins than smaller or family-owned newspapers traditionally have returned. These moguls have been quicker to cry out that the sky is falling than owners with more modest profit expectations.

Finally, under pressure to bolster their bottom lines, many bosses have "trimmed fat" by slashing newsroom budgets and cutting loose reporters young and old. This of course degrades the quality of the product, and arguably only exacerbates the problem of declining readership.

Hearst's current threats to cease printing the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (and now the San Francisco Chronicle), the woes of the newspaper industry are hitting close to home for local journalists and news consumers alike. And just in the last few weeks, seemingly everyone wants to talk about it. A swarm of panel discussions--mostly involving local professional journalists, and mostly separate from one another--have cropped up, asking different versions of the same question: what's the future of news in Seattle?

The first of the recent swarm of events was a Jan. 28 expanded meeting of the Seattle City Council's Culture and Civil Rights Committee, chaired by Nick Licata. The rather huge panel included UW professors Roger Simpson and Doug Underwood, two online journalists/entrepreneurs (Tracy Record of West Seattle Blog and David Brewster of Crosscut), The Seattle Channel's Beth Hester, Liz Brown of the local Newspaper Guild, Anne Bremner of the Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town, and Jennifer Towery of the Peoria, IL Newspapers Guild.

This panel suffered from trying to accomplish too much. After some historical context from the academics and obligatory lamentations of the dim prospects for the newspaper biz, the conversation focused in on the primary topic of saving the P-I. The Two-Newspaper Town and Guild speakers have been investigating various ways of economically saving the P-I as a stand-along newspaper, under a new ownership model.

Towery provided the most interesting idea, via phone from Peoria. There, unionized employees facing the closure of their local paper are joining with concerned citizens in attempting to re-establish the paper as an "L3C" or low-profit corporation – a new legal structure that would allow the paper to run as a nonprofit – accepting foundation donations and tax-exempt donations – while also being able to take political editorial stances. The strategy will require new legislation in Illinois, and none of the panelists suggested that it was a particularly compelling way forward for the P-I.

One problem facing any strategy for a P-I buyout (during the panel, Licata quashed rumors that the City had any such intentions) is the problem of what exactly is for sale. There's a lovely building, an accomplished newsroom, and a nearly 150-year-old century-old brand and reputation; but due to the paper's operating arrangement with the Times, it has no printing, advertising sales or distribution facilities of its own.

Several bloggers and online journalists posted their reflections after the City Council event, most usefully The Stranger's Erica Barnett and Lost Remote's Cory Bergman. Career journalist Chuck Taylor tweeted from the event; he has set up a blog focused on the future of journalism. Come to think of it, nearly the entire audience consisted of local new media and community media writers. This pattern would be broken by later future of journalism panels, which drew a much larger audience and attracted some provocative questions. More on that in part 2 of this topic.

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