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Posted by on Jan 10, 2009 in Economy, Media, Science & Technology | 2 comments

Latest Newspaper Death Rattle: Hearst Corp.’s Seattle P-I To Be Sold In 60 Days Or Be Closed

Right now you almost need earplugs to drown out the increasingly loud death rattles of some newspapers throughout the country that have been hit by a one-two-three-punch of a poor economy, plummeting readership and growing Internet news usage — all within the context of bad decisions over the years compounded by an inability to appeal to new generations of readers.

The latest death rattle is a loud one — from Seattle, Washington where the Hearst Corporation has announced that it’s putting the ailing Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper up for sale, and if a buyer isn’t found within 60 days, it will cease to exist, except on the Internet — if that. Since finding a buyer is unlikely, it could well downsize into a new Internet only newspaper model now followed by the respected The Christian Science Monitor.

Unless it totally dies.

The AP reports:

Hearst Corp. put Seattle’s oldest newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, up for sale Friday, saying that if it can’t find a buyer in the next 60 days, the paper will close or continue to exist only on the Internet.

“These options include a move to a digital only operation with a greatly reduced staff, or a complete shutdown of all operations,” Hearst, the P-I’s parent company, said in a statement. “In no case will Hearst continue to publish the P-I in printed form following the conclusion of this process.”

Hearst Newspaper Division President Steve Swartz broke the news in a meeting with newspaper employees.

The statement said Hearst is not considering buying The Seattle Times, the city’s other daily paper. Hearst has owned the P-I since 1921, and the paper has had operating losses since 2000, including $14 million last year.

The mood in the newsroom was grim. Some staff members cried, others were angry.

And newspaper staffers have reason to cry and a right to be angry.

To cry: Because what is happening really is the virtual death of a generations-old industry that has had a slow cancer for so many years and isn’t dying due to a lack of trying, people who toil within it and love it, or spending money.

To be angry: Because newspapers’ top management (read that: top managers ruled by those wealthy publisher-types who have private jets, move in elite circles and make big, fat donations to their favorite charities and seemingly yawn as they lay off staffers due to budget cuts stemming from their lack of vision) underestimated the impact of the new technology, miscalculated how much print publications had become irrelevant to younger people plugged into digital culture, and — like so many industries and most Americans — was not prepared for the sudden economic meltdown that wiped away many advertising revenues. Not to say unprepared for eBay’s and Craigslist’s impact on big bucks from classified advertising.

PERSONAL NOTE: I got this link via an ever-growing email list of former staffers of my former corporate alma mater, the San Diego Union-Tribune. The U-T is also up for sale, has offered limited buyouts, — and has been the scene of a staff exodus so extensive that it conjures up images of the Israeli desert.

Any minute now you expect to hear a Hollywood sound stage orchestra blare this Oscar-winning theme song on the road near its office in Mission Valley.

A former top editor of the paper, Peter Kaye, has now published a book, Contrarian that’s available on Amazon (product link below) that deals with some of the U-T’s decline — a decline that it is not impossible now to imagine could well end with no buyer and a fate similar to the P.I.’s. Two former San Diego U-T staffers sent the email list a link to this column in L.A. Observed by Bill Boyarsky titled “A journalist’s memoir and the story of a failed paper.”

These key passage in the column about what Kaye says about watching the San Diego Union start to die and why is highly instructive:

Personally, I was most interested in what Kaye had to say about his old paper, the Union-Tribune. Kaye returned to the paper after political campaigns and public television as a top-ranked editor. When he started years before, it was an awful paper, but it had improved over the years, but not greatly. The publisher was Helen Copley, the widow of James Copley, who had headed the Copley newspaper chain. She took over when he died. At her death, her son David Copley assumed command.

“Circulation was dropping, advertising revenues were off,” Kaye wrote. “We held meetings…our human relations department supplied a gaggle of gurus to guide us…an authority in diversity training said we should treat our employees more gently. A labor lawyer from Nashville told us how to smash the Newspaper Guild. One expert advised more features and lifestyle stories; another said we should emphasize hard news.”

Times are tough for newspapers and the Union-Tribune would have been hurt no matter how smart the owners. But except for rare periods, the paper was a mouthpiece for the conservative business interests, which ran San Diego, and for the most conservative elements of the Republican Party. San Diego was changing from that hidebound model, but the paper didn’t change with it.

After having to hire a lawyer to battle for retirement money owed him (“the company and I settled for 50 cents on the dollar which came to $100,000″) Kaye retired in 1993, walking away from the remains of a once-prosperous enterprise. Hopefully, the process of keeping it alive will frighten away [LA Times owner Sam] Zell and the survivors on the paper will be spared from seeing it reduced and dismantled by him.

This is what is most striking as we watch the gradual extinction of an industry for which so many have spent so much time preparing themselves, working overtime, letting their marriages fall apart and assuming that it would always remain a part of Americana.

For better or for worse, the Internet largely removed the Kingly or Queenly presence of The Publisher or The Big Editor from the calculation.

Now, with the Internet, each website or blog owner can be a mouthpiece for their group or political party, without having to clear it with a wealthy publisher.

Just press a button and publish it for the world to see — no need to please a rich man or woman who walks into a newsroom and causes usually fierce managers to suddenly look like inmates at Guantanamo trying to please an all-powerful guard. And since the Internet is so vast — the whole, wide world of computer users is the market, not just one city, state or region — the market would determine whether content could find a readership as enlightened or biased as its owner….not whether some bigwig publisher and his/her team of underlings decided it would be printed and be seen by readers.

Meanwhile, the P-I’s impending sale (which is about likely as GM buying Microsoft), Internet-only version , or total, sudden death has a profound meaning to Seattle, those who value newsprint newspapers, and for new media types who feel superior as they watch the impending death of another “mainstream media” publication.

Joshua Lynch has a MUST READ HERE on Spectator Blog, part of Seattle U’s student newspaper. It’s worth looking at passage of this and commenting extensively (make sure to go to the link and read it in full yourself afterward):

It’s a sad day for the people of Puget Sound because the news will soon no longer be in the P-I.

The newspaper announced today that it will be up for sale for 60 days, and in the absence of a buyer, will either close the doors for good or continue with a very minimal online-only staff producing for the Web. Under no circumstances, the P-I reports, will it continue in print.

For those who haven’t been following the current state of the newspaper industry, finding a buyer for the P-I would be similar to winning the lottery. The chances are just that bad.

The outlook for the quality of journalism in Seattle is even worse.

Even if the Seattle Times manages to work out its financial woes–mind you, while reducing it’s coverage–then its quality will be hurt by the lack of competition. And this, in addition to the non-existent or reduced online P-I, will only mean local government officials and other organizations will be held less accountable.

The sale also means plenty of very talented journalists will be out of jobs, with not many prospects for new ones in journalism.

Quality journalism has sprung over the years not merely from people deciding they would do their best when they write. Some other key motivating factors in daily journalism have always been to beat the competition, outdo the competition, get it so the competition is rewriting YOUR paper’s stuff, and to get good clips that will help you advance within your company or help you get a job on a bigger paper.

Now? The competition is vanishing, cooperating with competing papers, or not trying that hard anymore to compete because it’s in survival mode. Journalists who have clips will not find them as useful now, since hiring is not just down but in some cases the jobs for which they would be hired are gone — as will some opportunities to work at some bigger newspapers where they long- envisioned themselves working. More of Lynch writing about the P.I.’s sale or death:

Which bodes horribly for me, a junior journalism and photography student myself. I’ve done very little in my free time since hearing the news last night from a colleague. In fact, I’ve been staring(ironically) at for hours; I think I’ve read nearly every story featured on the front page.

I’ve also read (unfortunately) many of the comments posted on the Seattle P-I’s coverage of its own demise.

Lynch then gives his response to some of what he has seen — and he is quite perceptive:

1) For all of you “I get the news online” people, this will hurt you. Even if the P-I keeps its Web edition alive, it will not be able to offer the same comprehensive coverage. To make matters worse, the death of the P-I means the Associated Press will lose not only a subscriber who pays fees that support its operations but a content provider as well. The AP is responsible for so much of the news you see, including coverage on major networks or local broadcast news.

A weaker AP means weaker AP coverage all around. And the outlook for the AP could become more bleak for another reason: if you are a newspaper junkie, it’s clear the “news hole” is shrinking tremendously on newspapers and syndicated wire service copy is in many cases supplanted by syndicated newspaper chain or big newspaper copy. AND:

2) For all of you “I read my news on blogs” people, you don’t actually read much news that was originally generated by the blog. You read news reported by professionals at news organizations like the P-I, which bloggers typically rehash (just like I’m doing now) and maybe provide a link to. Another newspaper gone is another source lost for bloggers. And for those bloggers who do generate news content, how much of it is investigative? How many of them have connections at major employers in the area? How many file records requests or even know how? How many listen to the emergency scanner? How many can drop their day job to go cover what is happening in their neighborhood? How many can cover all the beats that a large newsroom can? And how many know how to write well? How many can make powerful images that tell a story and are beautiful? (By the way, the Seattle P-I leads the way in the Puget Sound area with the most informative collection of staff and reader blogs.)

I’ve noted this on TMV repeatedly over the years: Many blog writers on all political sides dismissively refer to the “mainstream media’ when if you cut out the mainstream media from their blogs, they would have little to write about. The number of weblogs that do original reporting could fit in a thimble. Most blogs are now extended op-ed pages — except for the fact that most blog posts would be rejected by newspapers and magazines due to name-calling and a lot of posts being more rants and assertions of opinions versus analysis-grounded opinion.

3) To all of you “Good, the Seattle P-I was so liberal” people: And your alternatives aren’t liberal, either? Childish comebacks aside, a newspaper is not defined by the leanings of its editorial pages. It’s defined by its truth, accountability and professionalism in reporting. The P-I offered this at a level you will not see in most other local media outlets.

The Internet has helped feed the inaccurate belief that newspaper reporting staff is the same as editorial writing staff. It ain’t. On most newspapers and magazines, operations are indeed separate. Oftentimes claims that a paper is liberal or conservative is because one side doesn’t want to see anything negative reported about their side. What differentiates the mainstream media from some of the new Internet is that mainstream media tries to play the role as referee….versus that of a cheerleader or sports team player. The myth that most newspapers’ editorial and reporting operations are the same is one usually perpetuated by someone who has a political agenda…whether it be on the right, left or center.

There’s more in his piece, including a prediction that 2009 will be known as the year of the death of newspapers (so read it all).

But perhaps it won’t come to that.

It’s unlikely that 2009 will be the year of the massive death of newspapers.

But they are on life support.

And it does seem as if market forces in the economy, a new generation that finds current newspaper operations hopelessly cemented in the outmoded technology assumptions of the 20th century, and the damaging hubris of newspaper managers and fat-cat publishers have, if not pulled the plug, fallen on the plug.

And now the plug is nearly out of the socket.

More info on the sale of the Seattle P.I. and comment can be found HERE.