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Thursday, March 9, 2006

What if There Were a Funeral for the Seattle P-I and Nobody Came?

Posted by on March 9 at 9:00 AM

My article in this week’s Stranger about the likely demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has been linked on Romanesko’s media gossip site, and is already generating some email.

I thought I’d post a link to the story here, too, so that Slog commenters can add their two cents. In the piece, I report on recent rumors that an endgame is at hand in Seattle’s long-running newspaper war an endgame that won’t favor the struggling P-I.

People in this city love to fret about Seattle becoming a one-newspaper town, but here’s my central question:

If a failing newspaper like the P-I dies, and it dies in a city that experts agree can’t support two daily newspapers anyway, and it also happens to die at the precise moment when that city is experiencing a proliferation of new media, well, who cares?

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I care.

I love the P-I. I'm not very happy with what they've become in the last year or two, as they attempt to find a new younger, hepper readership by gradually replacing all of the text with hideous graphics, but it's STILL a better newspaper than the Times, and always will be.

If the Times thinks I'm going to switch my subscription to them after the P-I dies, they've got another think coming. Frank Blethen, like generations of Blethens before him, is a flat-out scumbag who deserves to be flayed, burnt, and drowned in the Sound.

Alas, this "new media" of which you speak is laughably inadequate for the task. Blogs? Nobody reads blogs. And besides, blogs aren't news, they're commentary. News is just disappearing. It's a bad thing.

Sorry, Fnarf, but you are just plain wrong. By almost any measure -- and by the assessment of both the marketplace and of most professional journalists, The Times is a superior newspaper: More national and international news. More and better investigations. Better local columnists, especially since Danny Westneat joined them. Better photography. Better design. Better business and sports sections. Better editing.

That's why, since The Times moved to the morning, readers are choosing it over the P-I in overwhelming numbers.

Fnarf, "Nobody reads blogs"?

Um, you're reading this one, obviously.

As for "blogs aren't news," see http://talkingpointsmemo.com/

It's one of the sites that's starting to do its own reporting, in addition to commentary. One of the experts in my piece says this type of format is the way of the future.

Better sports? You must be joking. The Times's Mariners coverage is completely blockheaded. Better local columnists? Yeah, that Nicole Brodeur is really something. But the P-I is dying because the Times has been deliberately killing it.

Eli, if your definition of "news" is limited to scoops and scandals, then yes, Talking Points and Drudge are all you need (I do read Talking Points, btw). But there's a world of life in a city like Seattle, or even a small town, that newspapers record for posterity and blogs can't. I don't see how blogs can ever replace the hundreds of hours I've spent reading old newspapers in archives, for instance. There's no history on the internet.

As for readership, a recent Gallup poll says that a whopping 9 percent of internet users frequently read blogs. In a list of 13 common internet activities, reading blogs was ranked dead last. 27 million blogs, 27 million readers?

As anyone can tell, I read THIS blog because I'm a crank....

I care, particularly as the Seattle Times becomes increasingly more conservative and reflective of the suburbs -- not the city itself. (The Times endorsed Bush, for instance. Endorsing Bush in Seattle, for crissakes?).

The P-I to me seems more in tune with urban Seattle. I live in Seattle, so that's what I care about.

I do try to read both papers every morning, just as I try to read both weeklies each week. But I find myself gravitating more toward the P.i. for daily local news. Certainly it seems that the Times has more content, probably a bigger staff and has more money. But most of the national and international stuff they carry is news you can get anywhere. From a day to day perspective on local news, P.i. stories seem far more relevant to me, the news more urgent, the information more clearly presented. The stuff about the King County sheriffs department in the P.I. has been superb and seems like it might actually be making a difference.

Eli, you make a good point on the changing scape of media. With so many choices now, would it even matter if one paper closes or another? But I think it does. Newspapers (even in the online age) still set the agenda for public discourse in a city. With the introduction of every new medium -- radio, tv, the internet -- there have been dire predictions that newspapers days are numbered. And yet they're always able to survive and adapt.

And really, what's wrong with another editorial voice -- particularly if it's one that contradicts the other guy's?

Actually, in the last election, the Times endorsed Kerry over Bush.

Over the objections of their scumbag publisher, who has led the national fight to repeal the estate tax, which even super-richies like the Gateses think is the stupidest idea in the world.

where were they in 2000?
also, didn't they endorse dino rossi, the war in iraq and the patriot act?

I was amused by the notion that "experts" think Seattle can't be a two-newspaper town. In general, the experts are called upon when one newspaper is struggling in an overall climate where daily newspapers are losing readership.

Weirdly, very few actually discuss innovative business models; it's enough to claim people "just aren't reading newspapers" and write RIP.

The attitude behind the comment about the Seattle Times' superiority is, of course, why the Times isn't as good a read as the P-I.

where were they in 2000?
also, didn't they endorse dino rossi, the war in iraq and the patriot act?

Posted by dogday - March 9, 2006 10:54 AM

Don-- this is a good question and many of us don't know the answer. Your thoughts?

As a semi-frequent visitor to Seattle from a two-paper town (Chicago), it seems to me that Seattle already doesn't have two papers. If you combined the local columnists from both papers, you'd have less than one-half a local lineup--instead you have lots of three-day old New York Times and other syndicated columnists, which any truly dedicated newspring junkie gets in the Times anyway (along with the crossword). Add up the reporters from both papers, given the reliance on AP and other wire services, and you have about 1.25 worth of local papers.

A two-paper town has two newspapers which hate each other's guts, which have distinct editorial voices, and which cultivate local reporters to cover local and national stories. You don't have that now, so why worry? The Times will pick up the best of the PI's staffers, expand its ad pages, raise its price, and you can settle down. Just make sure they also carry all of the comics-- that's the main thing you lose when something as marginal as the PI shuts down.

Good point, Bill, and one I wish I'd had space to address in my story. Stephen Lacy, one of the experts I quoted in my article, explained the dynamic that makes the Times and P-I so similar this way:

"They try to be similar enough to be substitutes, but different enough that people want to take one paper over the other."

In other words, there's not a huge economic incentive in this market for the papers to be radically different. The economic incentive is to be only marginally different, and at the same time similar enough to confuse the average reader who's reaching for a paper at lunch.

So yes, as you suggest, this city might actually be better off with one daily paper that doesn't have to worry so much about looking like the other, and instead can focus on being the best possible version of itself.

Eli, I don't understand why, if two papers aren't providing a significant difference in viewpoint, we should be happier to accept just one point of view. I can't imagine the Stranger is worred that a hip, urban P-I would cut into its own distribution.

The Seattle Times (last time I checked demos) is a suburban newspaper catering to the greater Seattle area, with really limited penetration in the urban core. Its editorial perspective is sometimes laughable from trying to straddle that divide.

The P-I, meanwhile, has (or used to have) the usual Hearst reputation as the place to go for City Hall backroom deals, and other within-city-limits reporting. That kind of granular perspective is less and less interesting the further away from downtown that readers get, but it doesn't mean that the paper is not successful simply because it may sell to a smaller market.

Further to your notion that they're too alike, one of the experts I read claimed that the P-I was destined to die because it could never overcome the Times' market-size advantage. Shit! I thought. Better the phone the guys at Pepsi and let them know it's time to throw in the towel!

The P-I is worth every penny just to keep David Horsey stocked with pen and ink. If the P-I were to die, I'd be disappointed, and I'd follow Horsey to wherever he landed.

That's interesting, D -- because the obvious place for him to land is the Times, but I don't know if Horsey would be willing to work there. From what I've heard, he's one of many P-I voices who hate the Times's guts and are not shy about letting it be known.

Eli,

I appreciate the plug, and I agree with most of what you write, but I think you miss an important point about the interaction between blogs and newspapers: it's a two-way street.

Yes, we rely on the traditional news media as source material for much of what we write. And yes, bloggers are increasingly doing our own original reporting. But our original reporting and analysis has little impact if it doesn't get picked up by the mass media.

My David Irons story is a great example. The P-I picked it up the next day, legitimizing the story, so that TV could pick it up in turn. The real impact came from the footage that ran all weekend on KING-5 and elsewhere, of Irons' mom showing how he hit her.

But according to the Seattle Times, the story never happened. Even in their post-election analysis of why Irons lost, they never mentioned this story. As far as they were concerned, it didn't exist.

Once the P-I is gone, Frank Blethen could simply command that specific blogs like HA (or all blogs in general) don't exist. And to the majority of the news audience out there, we won't.

In the context of a one newspaper town, until online news and opinion sources like blogs can command larger direct audiences, the Times will indeed have a news monopoly for all intents and purposes.

Eli,

Weren't you once a temporary Times employee?

Didn't you really want them to hire you on? Weren't you hoping they'd like you more than they actually did when they let you go?

Didn't you have an emotional crisis when you lost your job there? WEren't you experiencing what some call a "nervous breakdown"? Didn't you leave Seattle altoghter? Weren't you seeking to "find yourself?"

Didn't you finally realize you were gay? Aren't you finally deciding to accept yourself? Are you really starting to grow up now? Have you realized your shitty pay at a laughingstalk paper really isn't getting you anwyhere?

Aren't you still friends with a lot fo Times workers? Don't you regularly inquire about openings? Aren't you still hoping to eventually land that job that can pay your rent?

DOn't you want a job at the Times again? Don't you really just want to work at the Times?

Don't you really just want a job?

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