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Dead paper walking

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. Credit: 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.

With the exception of a few people at the Times, no one wants to write the P-I‘s obit. No one wants to see a city newspaper join the ranks of the dead-tree media’s dead. But if nothing else, the P-I can write its own last story, under unenviable adversity: the painful act of doing one’s job until someone unplugs the globe for good.

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