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Dead paper walking

Some of the Post-Intelligencer's most painful days are ahead, but they at least have a shot to go out with a bang.
<i>Seattle Post-Intelligencer</i> Managing Editor David McCumber, in the background during the announcement to staff that Hearst Corporation is putting the paper up for sale.

Seattle Post-Intelligencer Managing Editor David McCumber, in the background during the announcement to staff that Hearst Corporation is putting the paper up for sale. Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Watching the heartbreaking video of the Hearst suit breaking the bad news to the P-I staff was cringe-TV at its worst:

Remember the video of New York Mayor Rudolph Guiliani's son stealing his dad's speech with his mugging antics? Seattle Post-Intelligencer Managing Editor David McCumber was that kid acting out the truth of the moment, offering a painful counterpoint to the carefully composed and delivered corporate words pronouncing an almost-certain death sentence of the Seattle daily. He covered his face, he crossed his arms, he rubbed his eyes, he stood like a fidgeting stoic, not mugging but a captain helpless in saving his ship.

It was all so familiar. I have been that man, though in less city-rocking circumstances. I stood by stoically when the Village Voice Media suits announced to the staff that we were folding Eastsideweek in 1998 and laying off most of its staff. It was a newspaper I'd started and run for nearly eight years. It was gone when the balance sheet was re-jiggered, profit expectations ramped up (remember when newspapers made profits?), and marketing strategies changed. It felt no less painful to be told it wasn't my fault.

I was the news exec in 2005 when Village Voice announced that it was being taken over by its arch rival, the New Times chain. I was that guy when Ziff-Davis corporate heavies came to town in 1980 and fired the staff of the Seattle-based national magazine, Adventure Travel, and moved the book to New York leaving us, a young, hard-working, passionate staff, unemployed.

I can't know McCumber's particular pain, but I can well imagine it. My phantom limb throbbed in sympathetic agony at his situation. It's tough to be the guy who stands there and tries to hold it together when the roof caves in. It's hard to be the guy who tries to hide his rage, disappointment, and disbelief in order to comfort the afflicted in the wake of top-down fiats and bottom-line decisions. It feels like shit.

And, I hate to say, but it's going to feel worse because there's a sliver of hope: the paper has a 60-day window to find a savior, but if Hearst doesn't have the deep pockets, if even the New York Times is on the brink, if even papers that are monopolies in their towns are struggling, like Hearst's San Francisco Chronicle, if the media meltdown is spreading like a new kind of Ebola that causes newspapers to bleed from every pore, the hope is slender indeed.

But that thin hope and the professionalism of the staff demands that in the meantime, they do their jobs under incredibly difficult circumstances. Day after day for at least 60 more days. Guys like McCumber will have to keep people going who see their lives flashing, he will have to get the best out of them without the ability to control their fate or make any promises. He will have to keep them focused and energized with no reward to offer but the work itself, a chance to go out with guns blazing, flags flying.

In the 30 or so years I spent as a magazine and newspaper editor, the worst times were managing transitions over which you had no control. In the years I worked at Seattle Weekly, I worked for four different owners and through three different sales. Keeping yourself motivated when you're on the auction block is tough. Imagine what it's like when your head, and the heads of all your people, are on the chopping block, too.

Grim as it is, this is a chance for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to show what it can do, though it will be tough to rally. But in that burst of effort, a savior might be found or reincarnation as a digital entity. If not, a city might be well reminded what it is losing, and believe me, if the P-I folds, it will be losing a great deal, including scores of reporters keeping the big boys and girls accountable and a sense of journalistic competition that makes papers better. The Times/P-I rivalry wasn't much on paper after the JOA, but it lived in the hearts of its reporters who lived to kick each other in the journalistic ass. Seattle benefitted from that spirit. A Seattle without the P-I is a city in which the Paul Allens and Greg Nickels and Seattle Port staffers and corrupt sheriff's deputies and Puget Sound polluters breath easier.


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Comments:

Posted Sat, Jan 10, 3:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Any union that receives benefits from the publication of the PI, should step up with some cash to help buy the paper. I would include the obvious direct employee unions, but I would also include all of the public employee unions (bureaucrats, teachers, etc.)since the paper(s) has been a faithful guardian of the organized labor agenda.
The local unions seem to find tons of dough for force-feeding the public a never ending list of goofball initiatives, laws, and pitiful candidates. The least they can do is start paying for the publicity and marketing they have formerly had for free.
Maybe all the local non-profits should also chuck in a few shillings, for all of the same reasons.
new name:
"The Seattle P-I And Peoples Paper", aka SPIPP, or 3P for short.

— Jamesa

Jamesa

Posted Sat, Jan 10, 5:05 p.m. Inappropriate


benefits from the publication of the PI ?

let's start a 60 day clock and see how your 'unions' come through on this !

Posted Sat, Jan 10, 9:08 p.m. Inappropriate

Beautiful and heartbreaking article from someone who really has been there.

Amgiz

Posted Sat, Jan 10, 10:50 p.m. Inappropriate

Yup. I'm in concert with Amgiz. Thanks, Knute.

Posted Sun, Jan 11, 2:24 a.m. Inappropriate

And I'm still missing the old KING broadcasting. At least we got a foundation when we lost that, not that it made up for it.

But now this.... thanks Knute, for casting even a little less-than-awful light on it.

Posted Sun, Jan 11, 11:12 p.m. Inappropriate

Damn. I wonder how much hope we should have that the online version will continue to live?

Sean

Posted Mon, Jan 12, 10:45 a.m. Inappropriate

The part I do not agree with is this:

Journalism may be a business tho the Hearst Corp. But to the people it is a public service much needed.

Thanks for all the words and education.

Posted Mon, Jan 12, 1:08 p.m. Inappropriate

Collectively the P-I staffers and editors willed the P-I to survive as long as it possibly could. Likely the Hearst corporate guy was honest when he said there was no quality issue regarding the P-I’s product, operations or management. This is the worst of times economically for our country generally, and for the print media specifically, and the Joint Operating Agreement was terminally dysfunctional from the very start. The P-I was swimming against powerful currents, and in the end the P-I died from exhaustion due to no fault of anybody working there. There is no shame on the P-I staff because the P-I failed, and everyone working there with should take their last strides out the door with their heads held high.

Tampadad

Posted Wed, Jan 14, 10:27 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks, Knute. It's almost physically painful for me to watch that video. I've been on the chopping block myself; recently, when Microsoft outsourced editorial maintenance of Encarta, and a couple recessions back, when King Broadcasting was divesting itself of stations. It sucks, no matter what role you happen to be playing in the room.

Posted Wed, Jan 14, 10:31 p.m. Inappropriate

Well said, Knute. The situation is heart-wrenching.

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