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

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.

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