How to turn around The Seattle Times

Fifth of a series: Alumni of the newspaper offer their thoughts on what could be done to ensure survival of an important civic institution. Updated 2008-04-11 at 09:06
Crosscut archive image.
Fifth of a series: Alumni of the newspaper offer their thoughts on what could be done to ensure survival of an important civic institution. Updated 2008-04-11 at 09:06

Editor's note: This is the fifth of a series of articles on the financial crisis facing The Seattle Times. Below are additional thoughts by Ross Anderson, Jean Godden, Mark Matassa, and Peter Lewis.

Until the strike of 2000-01, I fully expected to retire from The Seattle Times. I really loved it. Though it was far from perfect, the editors in the latter decades of the 20th century assembled an impressive roster of talent. I came of age surrounded by some of the giants of Seattle journalism, starting work there at age 27 in 1985 and leaving as a seasoned 43-year-old in 2001. It was wonderful. I worked in news graphics, on the general news desk, in metro, in features, and in business. I designed the front page, edited local news, and covered media and aviation safety. It was a dream job.

I still count dozens of people there as friends, and I feel for them with this week's announcement of layoffs. It's tragic. The Seattle Times does a whole lot of heavy journalistic lifting but locally gets not nearly enough credit as the most influential news outlet in the Northwest. (Sorry, Oregonian and P-I, but it's true. For starters, seven Pulitzers.) Whatever you think of the paper, there are some very smart and hard-working people there, some of whom have risked health and life to cover the news and most of whom have worked long, disruptive hours for less money than you might think to put out one of the best papers of its size in the country.

The Seattle Times is the best we've got around here, and it's in peril.

I'm hereby convening the Seattle Times Alumni Association to brainstorm ways of pulling the newspaper out of the quicksand. It's not a hopeless case, but between the global circumstances of the newspaper business and some not-so-smart business decisions by the Seattle Times Co., the situation is pretty dire. I'm going to offer some radical suggestions for transforming the place. Then some former colleagues are going to weigh in. And you readers can have a shot in the comments below. This article will evolve in coming days, so stay tuned.

Here's my rescue plan:

Switch to free distribution at newsstands and double the circulation. Raise the price of home delivery. Keep raising it until it's cheaper for people to buy and own an iPhone. Full speed ahead on delivery of information to mobile devices and customized news, both pushed and displayed on the Web site.

Shift the emphasis of advertising sales staff to the Web. Continue to serve present print-edition advertisers, and don't turn away anyone who walks in the door, but focus all cold calls on Web ad sales. Help local businesses get online.

Stop trying to be a full-service news product. Make the Web site an indispensable guide to everything online, but don't try to create and provide everything.

Make the print edition a quick, portable guide to what's on the Times Web site. Run only the most compelling stories at length in print.

Drop all news services but the Associated Press regional wire. Aggregate the national and world news – summarize and link to the articles on other sites – and republish those summaries in the print edition, directing print readers to top-notch aggregation at the Web site.

In terms of original content, focus on core competencies: local and state news, business, sports, and investigations. Get back to basics on beat coverage. Don't be afraid to actually cover a meeting or news event. Own the City Hall, Port of Seattle, and Gates Foundation beats. Stop covering spot crime and traffic accidents. Let TV and radio do that. Write more about education, health, and science.

You've got two blogging stars – David Postman and Geoff Baker. Find some more. Is it time for the columnists to shift their emphasis to blogs? Hire freelance bloggers in major neighborhoods and the suburbs.

Stop writing about food, movies, TV, gardening, and outdoors. Arts and lifestyle subjects, unfortunately, are topics too fragmented for big newspapers to cover well. Own a few areas of intense local interest with immersed experts when you have them. Otherwise, be a guide to coverage of those arts and lifestyle areas by others.

Enter into a joint venture with one of the evolving events Web sites. Leverage the readership. Be more like Trip Advisor and less like TV Guide. Speaking of which, drop the TV listings.

Stop going to Paris and Rio. Focus travel coverage on places you can get to in a day of driving. That would be the Pacific Northwest. Write about it like it's the exotic place it is, then resell those stories to media in other parts of the country.

Refocus the investigative reporting. If it's not a story with high local impact or a big local target, forget it. Focus on the institutions in our backyard. What others besides the Port of Seattle and the Huskies are ripe for scrutiny?

Cut back the editorials from two to one per day. Don't run anything on the editorial page that isn't local. Run more reader-generated material. Provide an aggregated guide to the best commentary elsewhere on the Web.

In the old days, people received on their doorstep once a day a self-contained guide to life. Some still want that, but few people live that way anymore. Go where the eyeballs are – online. Stop spending time doing things others do better at the national level.

I'll stop there. What else?

Small town papers are thriving because they're essential

From Ross Anderson (Seattle Times 1971-2001): I made two excellent decisions during my 30-year newspaper career. The first was to go into daily newspapering in 1970 - just before the Watergate scandal launched journalism into one last glory period of prosperity and professional prestige. The second was to get out in 2001 - so I would not have to stay and watch them die.

The death spiral at The Seattle Times and other metro dailies carries an air of inevitability. But it's worth noting the economics of some 7,000 American newspapers, mostly small town weeklies, which are doing just fine. Take, for example, the weekly Port Townsend Leader, where I write a now-and-then column. Each week, the Leader sells 8,400 papers in a county of 30,000 people and 12,000 households - an amazing market penetration of 70 percent. And it makes money.

Maybe the economic grim reaper is taking a little longer to find us out here in the provinces. Or perhaps weeklies are providing something not found in metro dailies, or the Internet. Weeklies, after all, face the same competition. Most of us out here have cable TV and computers with high-speed Internet. Many of us get a Seattle daily or The New York Times delivered, as well. So why pay six bits a week for the local weekly?

Because weekly newspapers understand that journalism, like politics, starts at home. The Leader offers no national or world news; that we get from NPR, CNN, or online. But it makes itself indispensible by printing the information people need - high school sports and movie times, agendas for this week's school board and city council meetings, ferry schedules and tide tables, calendars of upcoming lectures and charity auctions and upcoming night classes on diesel maintenance or Internet marketing.

And then there are the ads. The dailies are not losing readers nearly as fast as they lose advertisers. This is because metro dailies long ago raised ad rates beyond the reach of most local merchants, relying instead on national advertisers; now they're losing those national ads as well. But community papers like the Leader still rely on stacks of ads for local hardware and feed stores, barber shops and realtors.

What's the lesson here for The Seattle Times and other metro dailies? Think local. Most readers know who won last night's ballgame, or the Pennsylvania primary, hours before the paper arrived. But who will tell me what the Seattle City Council is up to? Or how the port is spending all those easy tax dollars? Or why the state ferry system is in disarray?

The greater challenge is, of course, how to lure back those ads. Can dailies break up their product into packages that can be priced within reach of local merchants? Years ago, the Times tried going local with zoned editions north, south, and east. Alas, zone staffers are at the top of this week's list of layoffs.

Somehow, an organization that has been trying to think big and regional has to think small and local. And maybe that simply is not doable, unless you are already small and local, and you've learned to like it that way.

There will always be truthtelling

From Jean Godden: As a former Seattle Times city columnist (1991-2003) and former Seattle Post-Intelligencer (1974-1991) staffer, I believe that I have more printer's ink than blood in my veins. I care as deeply about daily newspapers as any who have written, even though now, as an elected Seattle City Council member, I have a radically different relationship with newspapers.

How to rescue this supposedly dying institution? I say "supposedly" because I don't believe for a minute that newsgathering is going away, only morphing into a new and - hopefully - better form. There will always be journalists, there will always be truthtelling.

People will always care about what's happening around them, and journalists, even those no longer in the newsroom, will continue to report, if in a slightly different form. For, in my book, it's impossible to do the job of covering the news, day in and day out, without a sense of mission, a conviction that covering the news is a higher calling and that what one writes matters.

It's equally impossible to cover the news without bonding with others: the news aides who keep things running, the librarians who provide context, the copy editors who give you good headline, the line editors who keep you from looking foolish, and - most particularly - the co-worker at the next desk who knows your innermost secrets and who pitches in, unasked, when you're on deadline.

Putting out a paper every day is a small miracle.

How, then, getting back to the question, do we rescue this institution that - monetary considerations aside - is so vital to our democracy? Here are my top five ideas:

  • Local coverage. The idea of devoting more resources to covering one's hometown intensively is essential. People care more about their immediate surroundings than they do about far off places. One of the funniest scenes from The Paper, a favorite movie of mine, takes place during news meetings in a New York editor's office. The national editor keeps talking about a disaster in a Third World country, with hundreds dying "but only three New Yorkers." Obviously not front page news.
  • More surprises. Worst sin for a columnist or any other writer is to be totally predictable. You don't want the reader figuring out where you're going in the first sentence. A friend at another paper told me that he occasionally would write a "shoot the squirrels" editorial just to see if anyone was reading.
  • Newsworthiness. News should be new. Picking up the Monday morning paper is often boring because newspapers are not heavily staffed on weekends. So Mondays tend to be laden with wire copy and dull analysis known in the trade as "thumb-suckers." What's needed is more "talkers," stories that inspire people to say: "Did you see that story in the Times?"
  • Flexibility. Newspapers need to climb out of the rut of format. As former New York Times columnist Tom Wicker once said, "It's wrong to blindly follow typographic formulas. On some days you should run a full page of letters to the editor; on another it might be more important to publish the text of a treaty."
  • People news. It's no secret that people are interested in people. Seattle is more than skyscrapers and scenery, it's a mecca for an incredible congregation of individualists, from internationally famed chefs who populate wonderful restaurants to the local mystery writers who hang out here in disproportionate numbers. Who - if not the newspapers - will introduce us to our fascinating neighbors?

Those are just a handful of ideas. But I believe - I have to believe - that newspapers will survive, just as radio survived the certain death predicted when TV came along; that movies thrived even after videos seemed to signal an end to the box office. Newspapers need only to rediscover what they do best, and that task is not, as one former Washington governor said, "Lining my birdcage."

Don't scale back – work smarter

From Mark Matassa (Seattle Times 1987-1999): First, thank you, Chuck and Crosscut, for starting this conversation, for inviting me to participate, and for getting the discussion off to such a rousing start.

I don't think any of us knows how to rescue the Times or any other paper in this time of great change. And even if I did have the answers, I'm not sure I'd want to hand them over – for free! – to the paper that, as a former Seattle P-I editor, I residually consider my main competitor. Even so, I also have lingering affection for the Times, and as a lover of newspapers and of the news business, I'd like to see it and all local papers figure out how to prosper, or at least survive.

As we all know – reporters, editors and readers alike – newspapers are struggling to find the right balance between their print and online offerings, and are making guesses as they go about how far that transition will carry them. The Times has been slow and a bit bumbling in its embrace of the Web, with resulting shortcomings already noted here and in the comments.

That said, I'm not sure the answer is to jump immediately from thinking of the news "product" as that thing that lands on your front porch to that thing that, as Peter Lewis comically put it [below], lands in your iPhone.

Without trying to divine a specific prescription for the Times, my general advice for metro dailies is to think hard about what your particular readers want and need and then to ruthlessly pursue that focus, with presentation varying among print and online platforms according to space and time considerations. In my time as metro editor at the P-I (2004-2006), our emerging byword was "Seattle-centric," which I thought was a good and potentially effective mission, especially since our news staff was half the size of the Times'. Without surrendering on any news front, exactly, our understanding in that newsroom was that the Times was likely to outpace us in covering the suburbs. If we could own City Hall and Ballard and West Seattle and the other neighborhoods, as well as key beats like growth and development, education, Microsoft, and a few others, well, that could be a winning formula.

As I look over your recommendations, Chuck, I find myself agreeing strongly with some and disagreeing just as strongly with others.

Yes, get back to basics on beat coverage. Yes, be more discriminating about the big investigations and enterprise projects (if I see one more staff-generated dateline from Africa or China or Central America, especially after the dismissal of 20-year veterans this week, I'll have trouble containing myself). Yes, expand on the success of Postman and Baker as bloggers.

But the advice to drastically scale back the ambition of the paper – to kill most of the wire services, to spike arts and entertainment coverage, in short to "stop trying to be a full-service news product" – strikes me as misguided. If I were running a local news operation today, I'd go the other way: embrace local news, even hyper-local, but also use the wires to supplement local staff in giving readers what they want and need across the broad spectrum of news, including foreign, entertainment, sports and the rest.

There, Seattle Times, that doesn't sound so tough. Just do it without the 200 experienced staffers you just whacked, but with the ongoing morale problems you yourself helped create, and without the hundreds of millions of dollars you've spent battling Hearst in court and nostalgically buying those publications in Maine.

And don't forget to deliver it all to my iPhone as well as my front porch.

Good reporters have enough to worry about

From Peter Lewis (Seattle Times 1977-2006): Since this is a virtual discussion, I have no clue if Chuck was smiling when he suggested reducing the bulk of my newspaper to the size of an iPhone, but I find the idea depressing and unappealing. Clearly I am more hopelessly addicted to a physical paper.

I should confess upfront that as a reporter I never concerned myself with the newspaper as a business. My job was to be the best reporter I could be, and let the rest take care of itself. I hope those days are not over, because good reporters have enough to worry about without concerning themselves with how to make a buck for the publisher.

Still, there's no question the future is online, and that traditional papers must find a way to make the transition. On that score, I was gone when the paper decided to hire a new managing editor to oversee online operations. What didn't add up for me is that the person hired had a strong traditional print media background, and The Times was/is already teeming with such creatures.

I agree the paper has been missing the mark with some of its investigative efforts, which are very costly endeavors considering the amount of time invested and the relatively high salaries of the reporters and editors in that unit.

For many years the paper has been obsessed with winning awards. In a misguided effort to add to its Pulitzers, it has squandered precious resources, in my opinion, on long and boring investigative projects, including some with limited local interest. There's plenty of low-hanging fruit in this neck of the woods worthy of the paper's considerable investigative muscle. The paper's fine "Your Courts, Their Secrets" series is a prime example of good, solid, local work.

The idea of partnering with a news organization "born" on the web, or of creating/strengthening ties with broadcast partners, may make sense. The Times' greatest strength is local news gathering. Even with this round of discouraging layoffs, it will have the largest news staff in the state.

In this "everyone's a journalist" era, and the proliferation dubious blogs, the need for fact-based, "truth-squaded" reporting is greater than ever. The Seattle Times still has a brand name worth something, but it is eroding, and that makes me sad.

If you are a Seattle Times alum and have thoughts to share, e-mail Chuck Taylor.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors