What if a newspaper folded and nobody cared?

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's print edition dies, and while it's a shock to Seattle's sense of specialness, a new study shows that most people don't really care whether their local daily lives or dies. The real buzz is about what's next.
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Sad, yes. History, yes. But the buzz is 'What's next?'

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's print edition dies, and while it's a shock to Seattle's sense of specialness, a new study shows that most people don't really care whether their local daily lives or dies. The real buzz is about what's next.

No one likes to see the underdog get beaten, but the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, long the David against the Seattle Times newspaper Goliath, just got clobbered. The Blethens are the last men standing in this long-time grudge match, but they're staggering too.

Seattle likes to regard itself as an exceptional place, and staying a two-newspaper town fed our sense that we're something special, a literate, world-class city that could buck the trend that saw most major cities become one-daily burgs. We buy more books, we have more education, we're paragons of the creative class. Members of Committee for a Two Newspaper Town often made it sound as if having two daily newspapers was somehow the Platonic ideal of civic enlightenment.

Seattle never likes having its exceptionalism questioned. We don't like to be reminded that we're not so special, or that national trends can reach across the Cascades or Pacific and slap us upside the head. No matter our deeds and intentions, daily newspapers are dying like Ebola victims, bleeding from every orifice: circulation, advertising, public confidence.

To put the folding of the print edition of the P-I into a little context, check the grim statistics this week from the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism's annual "State of the News Media" report. It finds that newspapers are dying across the country, thriving only in small markets where Craigslist has yet to penetrate or where isolation, monopoly and intimate connections with readers have not yet been lost. Small dailies and community weeklies still connect with micro-communities and offer the kinds of things Facebook does: The paper you read is about your friends and family. It has recipes, obits, weddings, and school sports. These aren't newspaper assets, they're the embodiment of the community itself: What's vital belongs to the readers, not the writers and editors.

This lesson was brought home to me decades ago when I got to know Henry Gay, crusading editor of the Shelton-Mason County Journal. Henry was a liberal editor in a redneck timber town, and I once asked a neighbor of his why the community put up with his progressivism. The answer was: Well, as long as Henry prints the marriages, births, bridal news, and the high school sports scores, we let him have his page. "His" page. Henry may have thought he owned the paper, but his readers thought of him as more of an eccentric caretaker of a local trust. As long as he gave the community what it needed, he could spout off in his own column.

But daily newspapers have generally lost that trust. Seattle has had two general interest dailies for decades, and both have played enormous roles in the city's history, no question. But I'm struck with how little love there is for either one. Their shrinking circulation over the years, of course, was a sign that readers were peeling away, even before the advent of the Internet. The Pew study finds that the newspapers hurting the worst are in big urban areas, which suggests there is not wide public agreement that daily papers are necessary or relevant to life as its lived in the big city. Oddly, as Seattle grows and urbanizes, it is increasingly hostile to the small-town connections and shared sense of reality that have supported local papers for so long. The Web offers more diversity to increasingly diverse urban constituencies who may no long determine their "community" not by physical proximity but by niche, orbit or affinity group.

The loss of connection with and confidence has been dramatic nationwide. The Pew study found that less than half (43 percent) of Americans say that losing their local daily would hurt a lot, and only a third (33 percent) say they would miss reading their daily a lot if it shut down.

This runs counter to the dire warnings of newspaper folk who have warned at the bonds that will be broken if the dailies disappear. Clay Shirky, in a fascinating analysis "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable" that looks at this critical moment in media history, says that simply saying it's so doesn't mean it's so when the market is moving its eyeballs elsewhere thanks to technology. He writes "The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; 'You're gonna miss us when we're gone!' has never been much of a business model." The new technological imperatives of the Internet and mobility are overcoming the history of newspapers' past role in society. All indicators are that the past is past because it is demonstrably not sustainable. In the case of JOAs, even government intervention didn't solve the problem.

Another thing that's fallen away is media credibility. The Pew study reports that only 22 percent of newspaper readers say they believe all or most of what they ready in their local daily. That's down steadily over the last 10 years, from 29% in 1998. (Only 5 percent say they believe everything they read in the National Enquirer, but that number is actually up from '98!) Trust in broadcast journalism is also down, as are ad revenues and ratings for local TV news. So the media shift isn't simply a print shift. Fueled by the Great Recession, it's being felt throughout in the media ecosystem.

The Pew study says other polls confirm the state of America's media disenchantment:

Shortly after the November ['08] presidential election, for example, only a quarter of Americans rated the honesty and ethical standards of journalists as "high" or "very high" while nearly a third rated them "low" or "very low." Those results were within a few points of an identical poll taken in 2005. But they were almost the reverse of what Gallup pollsters found in 1976, in the aftermath of Watergate when a third of Americans gave journalists high marks for ethics and just 17% gave them low.

In early 2009, similarly, only 8% of Americans told an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll they had a "great deal" of confidence in the national news media while 18% said they had "no confidence at all."

So, while we take time this week to reflect on the great things we've read in the P-I, and the chapters of Seattle history that have been written by the P-I staff, we can take consolation in the fact that the P-I's failures are part of a larger shift in how we use the media, and in how our changing city's needs have to now be met by other means. Clearly we'd better hope that having two newspapers is not essential to good living, and in fact we ought to hope that being without any dailies won't be a barrier to improvement because, with the Times' problems, we could be one of the first major cities in America to find ourselves in that situation.

Alternatives are everywhere. In the case of the P-I, we're losing a print newspaper but gaining a well-staffed dot-com. Reports are that the news and editorial staff of the new P-I website will be about 20 people, with another 20 or so added to the sales and business side. The New York Times says that it will compete with online entities like non-profit Crosscut rather than with its old fat-cat nemesis, the Times. Hearst has tried to dampen expectations that it will be a "daily," but rather more a Huffington Post-style platform for news, links, commentary and local celebrity blogs (Norm and Constance Rice!). But a 20-person staff can do a lot: That was about the size of the Seattle Weekly newsroom when I was editor in its '90s heyday. You can't be a daily with 20 people, but you can make yourself known, heard and felt. You can break stories, you can offer up great commentary, solid reporting, even arts and entertainment listings.

The alternative press has itself been a half-century rebellion against the mainstream media; early skeptics and cynics about the notion that the press can be truly objective or take upon itself being a "paper of record" or the authority on what a community thinks or says. While the alt press continues (Seattle is still at least a two newspaper town in that respect), Pew reports that the alt weeklies have been struggling as well. But the action has really moved online, where the readers, especially young readers are found, even if the revenues aren't. The free alt papers like the Weekly and The Stranger were ahead of the curve in taking advantage of this. Still, they need print to stay profitable and haven't yet had to shed their earthly bodies for a Web-only existence.

To me, one of the interesting things about the P-I's reincarnation is that they're transforming into a larger, corporate-backed player in a field where everyone's essentially an alternative outlet now: small, scrappy, searching for a new formula, meeting needs that simply aren't being met by the mainstream outlets. In the online world of local citizen journalists and low- or no-pay bloggers, the P-I will no longer be an underdog. It's a world of multiple Davids and no real Goliaths. At this stage, that's one of its great virtues.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

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