How I Killed the P-I

And how we learned to stop worrying and kinda like the JOA.

By Eric Scigliano March 16, 2009

Today the Hearst Corp. pulled the plug: 66 days after guaranteeing the Post-Intelligencer 60 days to publish, it announced that March 17 would be its last day on paper. A shadow of the P-I will continue online—mostly opinion and aggregation rather than original reportage, just like a gazillion other so-called news sites.

Now that things have reached this sad pass, it’s time to make a confession: I killed the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. I did, that is, if you believe in omens and not in mere coincidences. In December my mate and I renewed our subscription for another quarter—which happened to end March 18, doomsday. No thanks, we said when the renewal notices came. She spurns the Times, which our sub would have flipped over to after the P-I expired. I can read it on the office coffee table.

No, I don’t think reading a newspaper online is the same as reading it on paper. A traditional broadsheet conduces to browsing, sampling, and comparing stories in a way no onscreen experience can match. I have the New York Times as my home page right now; I read perhaps a fifth as many stories as I did when I got it on paper. And I notice the ads less. It seems a lot of readers do the same—and advertisers know it, which is one reason newspapers are hurting so badly. They can convert readers to online—the P-I had a reported 1.8 million unique visitors to its site each month, and fervently hopes to keep them. But not advertisers. Life and publishing are unfair.

So if it makes anyone there feel better, I’ll take the blame for the paper’s demise. And deliver a more serious partial mea culpa. In 1981 the Seattle Times and P-I announced they would seek federal permission to enter into a money-saving exemption to antitrust law called a joint operating arrangement. My first real news beat was covering the fight over that deal for the Seattle weekly then known as The Weekly. A Seattle coalition called People Opposed to a One-Newspaper Town mounted the toughest case till then against a JOA—and, by extension, against the Newspaper Preservation Act, the controversial law that allowed such arrangements. PO1NT’s pro bono lawyer, Bill Dwyer, actually got the Seattle JOA overturned in federal district court. But an appeals court reversed that decision, and the Supreme Court refused to consider it.

The beat was an ethically sticky one; The Weekly’s editor/publisher, David Brewster, was also a main organizer of PO1NT. But he did have civic motives; he always maintained, rightly as it turned out, that his weekly would thrive as a cheaper alternative to joint Times and P-I ad sales. And he let me write what I wanted—though he knew when he hired me that I too mistrusted the Newspaper Preservation Act.

Some of our concerns seem almost quaint now, when an extravagantly negligent enterprise like AIG gets a $170-billion federal bail-out and serious people propose saving newspapers via government subsidies. Back then it seemed a grievous violation of journalistic independence for the government to grant newspapers a special antitrust exemption. In practical terms, we feared that the JOA, under which the papers sold ads and printed and delivered papers jointly, would forever lock out other publishers and lock in inept, penny-pinching absentee ownership—i.e. Hearst. Make Hearst compete and it might sell out or give way to a better publisher—say, the Washington Post, which owned the (Everett) Herald. Five hundred journalistic flowers would bloom, and Seattle would get vigorous competition between two strong papers, just like Denver.

For a while these fears seemed borne out. The Post did not march down from Everett. The Times, boosted by the P-I’s market share, did clobber the Eastside and South End suburban dailies. But in other ways things turned out better than we feared. The dead hand of Hearst came to rest more lightly on the P-I; William Randolph Hearst Jr.’s stultifying column disappeared; and the paper got bigger and better. P-I and Times reporters, their newsrooms still separate, competed furiously for stories. The two papers switched ideological places, and the P-I’s editorial page became one of the most liberal in the country. (The Times did stop endorsing George W. Bush in 2004.)

Meanwhile, the advent of mass-market free alt weeklies (The Weekly, before it became Seattle Weekly, was a relatively elite paid paper), the web, and that great newspaper-killer Craigslist changed all sorts of equations. Competing papers fell around the country. And the Newspaper Preservation Act started to seem like, well, not such a big deal. Maybe it had given the P-I a longer lifespan while still allowing it a vigorous life.

Or maybe it didn’t make much difference. Denver’s dailies continued to compete full-tilt for 18 years after Seattle’s merged their non-editorial operations. They formed their own JOA in 2001. One of them, the Rocky Mountain News, folded just 18 days before the P-I. It still had nearly twice the circulation the P-I had at the end.

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