Hang it up, Hearst

A practitioner of new journalism provides a no-hankies account of how journalism is changing, even if we have to live without The P-I.
Crosscut archive image.

The <i>P-I</i>'s iconic globe, at night.

A practitioner of new journalism provides a no-hankies account of how journalism is changing, even if we have to live without The P-I.

With the lamenting about the probable demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, you would expect to soon see something out of the Black Death: Robed men pulling donkey carts, carrying torches, ringing bells, and shouting, 'ꀜBring out your dead.'ꀝ

It'ꀙs not just The P-I, either. The list of late, lamented media outlets and related casualties is fast approaching plague-death numbers:

  • The publisher of The Daily Olympian resigned January 21st
  • The Tucson Citizen will cease publication March 21 if no buyer is found
  • The Minneapolis Star Tribune (a top-20 paper) filed for bankruptcy
  • The Boston Globe announced that it'ꀙs cutting 50 jobs from the news/editorial staff
  • The Seattle Times cut 31 jobs from its newsroom/editorial staff
  • The Rocky Mountain News will close soon if no buyer is found
  • Cox News will close its Washington D.C. bureau in April
  • Cox has also put up for sale the Austin American-Statesman and several smaller papers in Texas and Colorado
  • McClatchy is trying to see if the Miami Herald will help pay down $2 billion in debt
  • The Tribune Company (Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times) filed for bankruptcy and cut 400 employees from the company overall, including about 100 from the newsroom
  • The New York Times took a second mortgage on their new building to help pay down $225 million in debt
  • The Christian Science Monitor went to an online-only publication in October
  • Other papers that have drastically cut staff include: Orange County Register, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Dallas Morning News, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Baltimore Sun, Raleigh News-Observer, and the Newark Star-Ledger.

Lamenting by mainstream media journalists over the demise of a mainstream media outlet is to be expected. But it should be tempered with some sober objectivity. During the campaign season, most of these journalists were hot to get on board the bus labeled 'ꀜChange'ꀝ without realizing that change included them with a bull'ꀙs eye on their collective back.

When I came to town in 1963, The P-I was celebrating its 100th anniversary. It has a proud heritage (The P-I globe is as much a visual image of Seattle as anything) — and baggage. A law school classmate refused to buy 'ꀜthat yellow rag'ꀝ because it was Hearst-owned. He couldn'ꀙt forgive William Randolph Hearst or any of the clan for their unique brand of sensationalistic journalism. Some who have read W. A. Swanberg'ꀙs Citizen Hearst, one of the best biographies ever published, may beg to differ. Some who have read the modern P-I may not.

The death of any local institution is sad. Last August, I wrote for Crosscut of Weyerhaeuser Company'ꀙs demise as a manufacturing entity. Like The P-I, Weyerhaeuser was here almost from the beginning and had as much a hand in shaping the Pacific Northwest as anyone. Yet nobody shed many tears for Weyerhaeuser.

However, newspapers are unique, we'ꀙre told: First Amendment, Pentagon Papers, 'ꀜAll the news that'ꀙs fit to print,'ꀝ and so on. But that also includes supermarket tabloids, Jason Blair, and, well, William Randolph Hearst. Recently The P-I'ꀙs David Horsey, in an editorial cartoon channeling Thomas Jefferson, conjured an end-of-Western-civilization scenario where without newspapers, which of course included The P-I, American democracy is doomed.

Horsey'ꀙs reliance upon Jefferson was a stretch. What Jefferson said was: 'ꀜWere it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.'ꀝ In the context of his day, when newspapers were the only game in town, Jefferson was correct. Any good libertarian would have agreed with him, especially since Jefferson also said, 'ꀜGovernment big enough to supply everything you need is big enough to take everything you have.'ꀝ

But in the context of today, Jefferson the innovator and tinkerer, the Founding Father who always looked for a new way of doing things, might not be as morose as Horsey would lead us to believe. In fact, he might view the whole P-I kerfuffle with bemusement and a shrug of his shoulders. After all, when it came to their content, our third president was less enthusiastic: 'ꀜAdvertisements contain the only truths to be relied on in a newspaper.'ꀝ

While we see precipitous decline in the traditional newsprint and ink publication, we also see an influx of electronic news and information portals such that anyone with a terminal has access to more news and commentary than at any time in history. The message isn'ꀙt dead, just one particular medium that delivered it.

But we'ꀙre constantly told by the mainstream media (MSM) that the 'ꀜnew journalism'ꀝ types, bloggers in particular, aren'ꀙt up to professional standards. Sure, the blogosphere is untidy, often mean and undisciplined, and bereft of quality control. But there was a time when the same could be said of newspapers — just ask Jefferson, who was on the giving and receiving ends of hyper-partisan journalism of his day.

Were he alive, Jefferson would have been a blogger. Under a pseudonym (standard practice in his day), he would have penned some lines for all to read. And he would have applauded and supported the pioneers of blogging such as Stefan Sharkansky of Sound Politics and David Goldstein of Horse'ꀙs Ass, both of whom created go-to sites for what'ꀙs happening and what'ꀙs being said on the right and on the left. They would have been Jefferson'ꀙs morning coffee read, not necessarily The P-I.

Publications that are exclusively on-line, such as Crosscut, proliferate. New ones show up every day, and some die every day. Politicker, a web site devoted to state capitol issues, sought to have bureaus in several states, including Washington, but the business side of it wasn'ꀙt sustainable, hence its recent demise. Popping right up to replace it is Politicola.

While many of them are trying to find their financial sea legs, they provide news, commentary, and, importantly, an entry vehicle for aspiring journalists who otherwise might get shut out by the closed-shop MSM. In my case, I'ꀙm part of that wing of the new journalism coming out of think tanks. Once limited to issuing dry and unread policy papers, many think tanks now devote substantial energy and resources to pouring over public records and writing about what they find. Sometimes their work is self-published; sometimes it gets picked up by more traditional media. You never can tell. What we do know is that the targets of our work (in my case, Washington State Ferries) read it and are none too happy about it.

Like freedom, the process of change is messy, but necessary. Therein lies the rub for MSM, since traditionalists get stuck in ruts and resistant to change. Think what would have happened to, for example, The New York Times if it had embraced some of the new concepts instead of adopting a fortress mentality against them? If, instead of dismissing MySpace or Facebook, it had either bought one of them early on or aggressively competed against them by creating a rival? Instead, The Times, like many others, was more interested in creating Maginot-Line-like barriers to entry that were quickly destroyed by technically savvy entrepreneurs and others who saw the vacuum being created by the crumbling journalism infrastructure and moved to fill it.

Yet barriers still remain. In Olympia, the capitol press corps used to number 30 or more reporters. Now it'ꀙs down to nine or 10 with the departure of veteran reporter Chris McGann who used to write for The P-I. Like so many, he'ꀙs left to work for an agency of government. Who will replace the departed?

Apparently not me. My application for a press pass to cover the Washington Legislature was rejected by the Capitol Correspondents Association because I was told that Evergreen Freedom Foundation, the think tank for whom I report and write, isn'ꀙt a 'ꀜnews outlet.'ꀝ They read me the rule: 'ꀜTo get a credential, an applicant's principal income must come from news coverage for an FCC-licensed radio or TV station, or a daily or weekly newspaper of general circulation.'ꀝ It'ꀙs not as though there are a ton of them left, so what'ꀙs the big deal? How long before they have to scramble to find a fourth for pinochle?

Another critical issue not given sufficient attention has to do with the business side of newspapers. In the words of one journalist friend, 'ꀜCraig'ꀙs List and E-Bay blew a big hole in the revenue ledger of every newspaper. Advertisers go where the eyeballs are and they could care less whether those eyeballs are looking at a screen or a papyrus scroll.'ꀝ

Advertisers aren'ꀙt interested in crusades, which can anger potential customers. That economic calculation for publishers is part of the problem. They forgot that they need an engaged public to survive. While it'ꀙs important to have a vigilant and active press, that'ꀙs not the same as having a bunch of old-fogey newspapers who think they should be immune from the whipsaws of life other businesses experience.

But we all need to learn these hard lessons, including those of us in the new journalism. Keep it fresh, embrace innovation and change, stay ahead of the curve, and remember that we exist at the whim of the marketplace. It'ꀙs a tough, competitive world — get used to it.


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