The Seattle Times' suburban retreat

First of a series: Publisher Frank Blethen sought to conquer the Eastside but helped turn the suburbs into a daily newspaper desert.
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First of a series: Publisher Frank Blethen sought to conquer the Eastside but helped turn the suburbs into a daily newspaper desert.

Editor's note: This is the first of a series of articles on the financial crisis facing The Seattle Times.

What was that famous quote about the Romans? "They made a desert and called it peace." It came to mind when I read that The Seattle Times was closing its suburban bureaus, including its once substantial Eastside operation in Bellevue. In a story about the newspaper's hefty layoffs and cutbacks, Eastide columnist Sherry Grindeland was quoted by Eric Pryne saying: "It's a sad day. I feel the Eastside is going to not be getting the attention it should get." That's an understatement.

During its years of empire, the Times considered any territory Times territory, and for years a war was fought on the Eastside for daily newspaper supremacy. I used to work for the original parent company of the old Bellevue Journal-American, which later was called the Eastside Journal and, in its final death throes, the King County Journal. I was also editor and publisher of Eastsideweek at its founding in 1990 – an alternative newsweekly launched by Crosscut founder David Brewster as a foray into the suburbs by Seattle Weekly. For a time, I had a front seat view of the competition for the growing Eastside market.

The old Journal-American had been founded in 1976 when John McClelland Jr. of Longview, Wash., merged two weekly papers into the state's first daily in 60 or so years. It also turned out to be probably the last. The idea was that the paper would serve the booming suburbs in a way the Seattle papers couldn't and wouldn't, and like a town getting a pro-sports franchise, Bellevue's daily served notice that the town had arrived and had world-class ambitions. That was punctuated for Seattleites when Bellevue's first skyscrapers began popping up on the skyline in the 1980s. What the hell is going on over there? people asked.

McClelland made no bones about wanting a full-service, regionally competitive paper. The Seattle Post-Intelligener competed for morning circulation, mostly newsstand. The afternoon Times gained a stronger hand after it got the joint operating agreement with the P-I renegotiated, freeing it to compete in the morning against smaller game on the market periphery. Frank Wetzel, former editor of the J-A and former Times ombudsman, thinks the JOA was a turning point:

I have little doubt that the JOA contributed to the demise of the Journal-American. The JOA permitted the Times to concentrate on developing its coverage of the suburbs instead of competing full-scale with the P-I. Now, it appears, the Eastside will be bereft of the sort of careful coverage that only a daily newspaper can provide. The damned JOA should never have been approved.

In the 1990s, the Times decided to really muscle in on Eastside turf. It opened a big bureau in Bellevue, even shifting its printing operation to Bothell to better distribute in the suburbs. In 1995, it bought the Issaquah Press. It established a beachhead in the burbs and produced daily zoned editions for the city of Seattle, the Eastside, Snohomish County, and South King County. That allowed them to go head-to-head with the J-A (and the Everett Herald and Tacoma News Tribune) in local news.

While the Times was getting stronger, the J-A was weakened by ownership changes and a decline in editorial quality. As a latecomer to the daily game in a market that was a mile wide and an inch deep, the J-A had trouble taking root. It had tended to be Bellevue-centric, which was off-putting to fast-gowing towns like Redmond and Kirkland, and its brand of localism failed to give an increasingly sophisticated readership the type of coverage it wanted. For example, in the late '80s and early '90s, the J-A was the go-to paper to learn about Kemper Freeman Jr.'s new plans for Bellevue Square, but not for coverage of companies that were the future of the area, like Microsoft and Nintendo.

Times Publisher Frank Blethen's move into the market ratcheted up the pressure. The then-money-rich Times threw resources at the J-A's strengths, and the Eastside edition not only dramatically improved and expanded Eastside news coverage but also became the go-to source for basics like prep sports and gossip. They hired fixtures like Grindeland, the Eastside's Jean Godden. The zoned edition allowed the Times to pick off local advertisers. With the near-monopoly power of the government-sanctioned JOA, the Times campaign took a toll on the J-A, which eventually wound up in a death spiral of cost-cutting, mismanagement, and confused identity.

The battle became bitter. One famous skirmish was during the newspaper strike in 2000, when the Journal's publisher, Peter Horvitz, agreed to print the first edition of the strike paper, the Seattle Union Record. Enraged at this breach in the fellowship of publishers – even one who intends to put you out of business – Blethen sent Horvitz an email: "Fuck you to death," it said.

Horvitz's King County Journal finally succumbed in early 2007, but by then the Times empire itself was shaky. It had squandered the treasure, fighting suburban turf battles and expanding in Maine. It had been beset by an expensive strike that could have been settled comparatively cheaply. There were technology shifts, advertising recessions, Craigslist, and an expensive legal wrangle with P-I owner Hearst. Unprofitable and looking to sell assets and cut costs, the Times is now fighting for its survival, too, unable to capitalize on the opportunity of having the Eastside market essentially to itself.

So the Times played a part in killing off the Eastside's one daily and is closing the Eastside bureau and folding the zoned edition that put it in the game to begin with. The Times retreat comes at great cost to the rapidly urbanizing Eastside, which no longer has a daily, an alternative newspaper (Eastsideweek folded in 1998), or the lavish attentions of a Seattle suitor. Some community weeklies still thrive, but suburban readers of 10 or 15 years ago were much better served.

Grindeland, who was laid off this week along with the rest of the bureau (save veteran reporter Petyon Whitely) worries about the general trends in the industry that threaten the over-the-back-fence style of neighborhood journalism she's practiced. In an email, she writes:

I've enjoyed covering the Eastside but have long been frustrated by how little respect community journalism garners in the world. The stories that win Pulitizer prizes are the big exposes and mega-investigative reports. For every high quality story like that, there are thousands of smaller stories about our friends, our neighbors and people on the other side of town that should be told. When I talk to high school students, I often say there are two kinds of stories. There are the big ones that win prizes. And there are the stories that people clip out of the newspaper and put in scrapbooks or send to relatives back east. I do the clip-and-save kind. I still believe there is a place for community journalism.

Just as the Romans were changed by conquest, some would argue that the Times' Eastside adventures have helped suburbanize the mother-ship itself. It gives bigger play to stories outside Seattle proper, where many of its editors (and Blethen) live, and its Web site makes the "paper" accessible to everyone in the region. Editorial Page Editor Jim Vesely is a constant voice for the suburbs, and some folks remember that Blethen at one time even threatened to move the whole paper's operation from Fairview Avenue North in the South Lake Union neighborhood to Bothell. Long perceived as the paper of power, the Eastside is more reflected in the Times' outlook in part because that's where the region's economic engine is.

However, the Times decision means the paper will no longer fill the void its imperial ambitions helped create. The upside is there is opportunity for someone else. Grindeland's appeal for community journalism is what blogs are all about (Bellevueist, anyone?), though they seldom come with the kinds of paychecks journalists are used to. With a tech-savvy readership and the advantages the Web can bring to hyper-localism, however, there's room for something new. The media, after all, abhor a vacuum.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.