Editor's note: This is the third of a series of articles on the financial crisis facing The Seattle Times.
The staff cutbacks announced Monday, April 7, at The Seattle Times, following the Blethen family's announcement that it was selling its Maine newspapers to keep the flagship paper alive, and the continuing shrinkage of both the Times' and Seattle Post-Intelligencer's circulations and revenues, are not isolated local phenomena. They are part of a national pattern.
I returned last weekend from a week in Washington, D.C., and New York, partly promoting my recently published book but also participating in a two-day symposium at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism at which all things media were discussed in some detail.
While in D.C., I did a podcast at The Washington Post from a studio from which the Post had launched and then discontinued a radio service – both signs of the times in a rapidly changing media culture. At Columbia, J-school alumni from the classes of 1946 to present day (I am class of 1956) speculated as to whether traditional print daily newspapers had a future; whether the proliferation of specialized print, broadcast and online media was a good or bad thing; and, not surprisingly, if there would be jobs to go around for both present and future journalists with even the strongest of credentials.
I was shocked to encounter several big-name print and TV journalists who had recently been given their walking papers, mainly because they were judged too costly for the benefit they brought their employers. They were being supplanted by younger, greener, and less-expensive successors. These were not retirement-age people. Their ages ranged from the 40s to early 50s.
Recent J-school grads, as well as those in the upcoming graduating class of 2008, worried that they would find jobs anywhere except in online media – which is where jobs now seem to be. The upcoming grads mostly expressed a preference for jobs in traditional print journalism. Their older counterparts expressed nostalgia for good-old print journalism days and values. But all conceded changing times.
Several senior print and broadcast executives at the conference made brave, applauded statements to the effect that new and profitable operating formulas would be found for old media. But to me it seemed so much whistling in the dark – the kind of things said to buck up the troops before the barbarians came over the parapet.
The changes in this industry, I thought, were not all that different than those in others undergoing technological change. Economists would tell these people, I thought, that there would be jobs all right, but not the same ones existing today – a reassurance no more comforting to a post-40 serious print journalist than to a journeyman toolmaker of the same age.
Last Friday, I encountered some old friends and acquaintances in a small group seated on folding chairs in a hallway. They were, I found, the Pulitzer Prize committee finishing their work on award winners, which were publicly announced Monday. The Pulitzers remain focused on traditional print media and work. On return to Seattle last weekend, I learned to my surprise that my publisher, University of Washington Press, had nominated my recent book for a non-fiction prize in next year's Pulitzer competition. I could not help but wonder if the pool of nominees had shrunk in the years since print was king.
Crosscut, among online publications, should have a future in Seattle and the Northwest. Its editorial contributors are knowledgeable and professional. It is not dragging behind it the costs of a printing plant, delivery trucks, retirement benefits, display and classified ad sales forces, and an office building. It is hard to see Seattle's two print dailies facing anything but continuing pressures. Neither the Times nor P-I is profitable – in fact, both have run for several years in the red. At some point, either the Blethen family or Hearst directors will ask the question: What benefit do we derive from operating, year-after-year, a red-ink business in Seattle? Which will blink first?
A major-market publisher present in New York told me he thought "Frank Blethen would die before he would sell or close the Times." But the P-I, too, has a long local history and deeper pockets than the Blethens.
As an old-generation reader, I feel a need to hold full-size print newspapers in my hands at the breakfast table. But on bad-weather days, when I choose not to visit my neighborhood newsstand, I forego that pleasure and simply go to national and local papers' Web sites. Younger readers don't bother with the print version in the first place. Yet no print daily has yet found a successful formula to make its website financially profitable.
It occurred to me, while I was in New York, that in my J-school days there were the New York World-Telegram, Herald-Tribune, Journal-American, PM, and Mirror, in addition to today's Times, Post, Daily News and Newsday. I worked nights and weekends for the now-defunct Long Island Press in Jamaica, Queens. It seems all too clear that, not too far ahead, there will be a Crosscut and, possibly, other online dailies locally and only one Seattle daily print newspaper – no doubt struggling, even without a daily print competitor, to make a profit.
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