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An Insider’s View: The Strange Final Days Of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer

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imageOn Jan. 9, Hearst Newspapers President Steve Swartz flew into Seattle and told the staff of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that if Hearst could not find a buyer for the 146-year-old paper within 60 days, publication would cease.

So, on March 10, the 60th day, we expected an announcement. The final commemorative edition was ready to go to press. An all-staff picture had been taken. Last-minute visits to the globe that spun on our roof were arranged. News budgets lay mostly bare.

The newsroom wisdom: Why would Hearst want to keep our paper in business for a single extra day and have to deal with the additional expense? I thought the announcement would come around noon.

But when our reporter called a Hearst spokesman asking what was new that morning, the spokesman said the company was still evaluating its options. Rumors quickly circulated that perhaps the incredible had happened — someone actually wanted to buy us. That had to be why our demise was being delayed. Word spread that an “Asian investor” was interested. And that a lawyer linked to Bill Gates himself was taking a look.

Then, shredding bins, recycling containers and empty boxes arrived. Ominous signs.

But still no word from on high.

The newsroom collectively screamed — via a chain of famous quotes with not too subtle undertones that staffers e-mailed out to the all-staff list. (Samples: “I wear black on the outside ’cause black is how I feel on the inside” — Morrissey; “Nothing so focuses a man’s attention as the prospect of being hanged” — Samuel Johnson.) We designated a dog as the employee of the month.

Still no word.

The next day, the publisher sent out a note. The subject line of the e-mail: “Hearst expects to announce a decision regarding the P-I at some point next week.” The body: blank.

We were actually relieved. Finally, we knew something. For the next three days at least, we could concentrate on putting out a paper. It was business as usual — as it had been for most of the 60 days before, in part, perhaps, because the staff was left entirely out of the loop on what was going on.

Immediately after Swartz’s January announcement, our fate was center stage, as our union negotiated a severance package with management. We were working without a contract, so Hearst did not, in fact, have to offer us any severance at all.

But once that was settled (Hearst ultimately offered severance to all employees of the P-I), uncertainty took a back seat. There were no all-staff memos about our state or all-staff meetings to boost our morale. Instead, we were left to do our jobs.

I became immersed in Microsoft’s first-ever mass layoffs, and later contractors, also at Microsoft (NSDQ: MSFT), protesting upcoming paycuts. A lengthy investigation on the Boy Scouts’ shady environmental practices ran to some acclaim.

Yes, some things were different: There was lots of job searching on the side, optional special sessions designed for coping with the loss of a job, and suit-clad groups touring the newsroom everyday with real-estate agents. A small cottage industry also popped up to sell Post-Intelligencer memorabilia. T-shirts, showcasing the globe with a vulture on top instead of Hearst’s eagle, for $10. Two styles of P-I hats, at $15 each. And so on.

But when it came to what mattered — putting out a paper — it was easy to forget that your job was set to disappear.

Public-relations professionals continued to dutifully call and some readers apparently did not know that anything was awry.

When the width of the newspaper shrunk, callers complained to the business editor that the listings had been cut. She ignored the obvious retort: Chances are there won’t be a paper at all in less than two months!

Swartz’s announcement was accompanied by a small bit of hope for the staff: In his remarks to the newsroom he said that Hearst might launch a digital-only edition of the paper, which presumably would employ at least some of us. He would not take questions.

But for a long while that did not distract us either — because we did not hear much about it.

A Hearst digital executive from Houston visited, and staffers were invited to sign up for one-on-one meetings with him. But the man would not say anything about Hearst’s plans for an online-only paper and instead wanted us to talk, to pitch our ideas.

Then, a week before the 60th day, the digital executive was back. Together with the editor in charge of the website, they called select staffers on their work phones. “Do you have a moment to chat?” they said. In the executive conference room, they made “provisional” job offers in the event that Hearst went ahead with an online-only Post-Intelligencer.

The chats were off the record, but word nevertheless spread. A business reporter started asking each staffer in the newsroom if that person had had a discussion. “No comment” was interpreted as yes. A story was written, with names, indicating that at least 20 staffers would be kept on. Tension built.

All the online producers were offered jobs, along with most of the younger reporters. But beyond that, the selection process seemed arbitrary. Because there was no application process, reporters who did not want jobs with an online-only publication were offered them, while others who did want them were not offered spots.

In retrospect, that — choosing the staff — might have delayed the end.

Hearst wanted to make sure that the website was all set to go the day after it shut down the paper. But on the 63rd day, the web editor was still making “provisional” job offers to fill spots that had been turned down.

At 10 a.m. on March 16, the 66th day, as most staffers were just arriving in the newsroom, an all-hands meeting was called.

The next day would be the last of the print Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the publisher declared. He added that “the bloodline” would live on in the form of a news website carrying the Seattle Post-Intelligencer name. Behind him were human-resources professionals flown in from other Hearst-owned papers in Houston and San Francisco.

The announcement was spun as the first paper to make the transition to an all-digital daily. Nevermind that the site left behind would be a skeleton of its former self. The new editor in charge would not respond to questions when I asked her for a story about the transition intended to run in the final print-edition. Instead, she posted her own, unfiltered thoughts online.

Those staying behind started to fret about their new, all-encompassing beats. (Want to write about Boeing and *Microsoft* and *Amazon*, companies that previously each were covered by separate reporters? Anyone? Anyone?)

Those of us who were not part of the new website celebrated with whiskey and beer. I packed a box.

13 Responses to “An Insider’s View: The Strange Final Days Of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer”

  1. Hugh Seasnor

    I never had the pleasure of working for the PI. I have a job I enjoy in the industry, and I make sure I follow up my words with action.
    BTW, Wait a Minute- I use my name, rather than hiding.
    I have done my best to be respectful of the writers at the
    My email is my name at yahoo.

  2. Not a naysayer

    Hugh, it's easy to sit in your livingroom and criticize. If you've got a problem with how journalism is being handled, go do something about it.

  3. Hugh Seasnor

    Mr. Preston,

    You state that "the most valuable journalists now are not the most young or the most cute (or even the cheapest), but those who can do in half an hour what used to take a reporter a whole day."

    There are a few things that can be done in half an hour. Blogging about a silly birthday gag sign on a lampost takes about that long. Summarizing the latest media release from Microsoft or Amazon is also pretty quick, but that is not what I was talking about when I discussed reporting.

    Real reporting takes phone calls and shoe leather. Technology only speeds up the collection of bits of information, not the whys or the hows behind them. In a recent story, we were told that i Amazon is closing three distribution centers. TO find out what this means requires more than a 2 minute chat with the media contact. One of the centers closing has been open for only 18 months. Did any of the half hour reporters call this center? Probably not.

  4. Amanda Natividad

    Hugh — Well said. You've brought up some excellent points. As a young journalist, I'll be sure to keep all of this in perspective. I'm glad you said "you are not lucky to have jobs" because often times, I think people will merely say, "You're so lucky to have a job." It's a no-brainer that I feel very fortunate to have remained employed in this climate, but I also like to think that luck isn't the sole reason for this. However, I will never forget the sad truth that no one is indispensable.

    Andrea — I didn't take offense to your comment..

  5. Hugh –

    "Hot type has given way to bytes, but the craft of teasing a story out of source, the knowledge that something you investigated and wrote was done right, and made a difference or saved a life, still has to be taught, and learned. But those teachers are gone, laid off for being too expensive or not young or cute enough"

    Hate to be insensitive, but I think you're projecting here. Youth is correlated to who's hanging around yes, but it's not the causal factor.

    The tools of journalism are changing along with the medium, and the most valuable journalists now are not the most young or the most cute (or even the cheapest), but those who can do in half an hour what used to take a reporter a whole day.

    Andrea –

    I thought it was funny…

  6. GM Smith

    The late, great A.J. Liebling said, "Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one." Those who work for newspaper corporations are, and will always be, subject to the financial decisions of the owners; that is a reality of our business. The ones who suffer are the readers because, along with the decision to fire thousands of experienced, older editors and reporters, institutional memory also leaves the newsroom. The young "hip tech" workers may be proficient at web page layout and multimedia reporting, but the readers soon discover that the depth of the news coverage can become about puddle-deep. I feel, as a reader and as a journalist, that there will always be a need for the "old China hands" at the helm of political and business reportage. Newspapers are a banquet and news bytes are a snack. The owners/stockholders have chosen. I think we are poorer for that decision.

  7. Hugh Seasnor

    Ms. James-
    I see you work for the the website. Do you realize how cruel and unfeeling your "pick me!!" comments were?

    I saw you on TV news constantly during the shutdown coverage and I think it might be that you are just very young, and your comments are thoughtless rather than intentionally hurtful. But you can not be thoughtless now. Your words get seen and heard outside of your facebook friends now.

    People who had jobs with the PI from before you were even born are sitting at home today, trying to figure out why the profession they sacrificed so much for abandoned them, while you sit amongst the empty cubicles making cute remarks online with a paycheck still coming your way. The reality is that many of them saw their last newsroom when they walked out of the PI. And most were not given a chance to be "picked." Hearst rubbed their noses in it by callously offering jobs to the chosen few, while the vast majority sat waiting and wondering.

    Think too about what was taken from YOU. Journalism has almost always had a long apprenticeship period, with low wages and insane hours traded for time with grizzled reporters sharing much of what they learned through experience and from their own grizzled mentors.

    Hot type has given way to bytes, but the craft of teasing a story out of source, the knowledge that something you investigated and wrote was done right, and made a difference or saved a life, still has to be taught, and learned. But those teachers are gone, laid off for being too expensive or not young or cute enough

    This is not to say that those remaining are not talented. Most of you are good journalists. But becoming a great journalist means understanding that one person covering all those companies will likely produce coverage a mile wide and an inch deep. It is all you have time for. I saw starbucks is launching Ice cream- again. No coverage of why it failed the last two times they tried to sell ice cream. Contrast that with the great stories about the PI closing you cowrote, or the eye opening piece you wrote with another reporter a year ago or so ago on boeing and funny business with some of the numbers they reported… Could you find time to do that now?

    Hearst kept some of my favorite young writers. I think you all will go far, and I hope will spend your grizzled years teaching the new young hotshots a few things about journalism. But please remember the losses. No more investigative journalism from the PI- it is just too expensive to hire reporters with the experience to do that kind of work. And not just because of salaries. It takes time to develop sources, to go out and knock on doors because of a gut feeling and time costs money.

    You are not lucky to have jobs. Do not let anyone tell you that. I love the stories of the turndowns to early offers. I am sure that shook up some corporate folks back in NYC! You had a job at a major metro newspaper when NOBODY is getting journalism gigs. But remember that you all are also affordable, and that youth equals tech hip in this new world. Show some respect for the reporters and editors no longer there. Respect for the people, and respect for what they spent years building. The is standing on their shoulders.

  8. "Those staying behind started to fret about their new, all-encompassing beats. (Want to write about Boeing and Microsoft and Amazon (NSDQ: AMZN), companies that previously each were covered by separate reporters? Anyone? Anyone?) "

    Sounds easy!/not sarcasm

    You ready to cover a million things for PC?

  9. I think they knew what was going to happen and did not want to tell staffers until it was almost too late. There is no plan in place – to stay there is to stay with nothing cause there is no backing for the staff by hearst corporation. The only thing they could do with thoroughness is bring on the people who were taking the lambs to slaughter. How were you intelligent enough to pack the box and have a healthy alternative to continue the work you love and do so well Joseph?

    from JGolden