Scoopless in Seattle: P-I beat on own sad news
That’s what happened last week to the staff of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, who learned from KING-TV that Hearst Corp. was planning to put the paper up for sale – and would close it if no buyer were found. Because the odds of finding a buyer in the next 60 days are short, the announcement amounts to a death warrant for the 146-year-old publication.
So, who leaked the story to KING?
The television station first broadcast the news of the impending announcement on Thursday night. The official word was not delivered to the shell-shocked staff until mid-day Friday, when Steven Swartz, the president of Hearst newspapers, delivered a short, apologetic announcement (video below).
Steven said the newspaper has lost ever-larger amounts of money each year since 2000. The newspaper later reported that the deficit was $14 million in 2008 and projected to be even higher in 2009.
Because the highly sensitive decision to shut a business unit usually is closely held at the top levels in any corporation, the list of potential leakers at Hearst is fairly short. It would include Steven, his bosses and a handful of legal and financial advisers. But it seems all but certain that they would not have wanted to sow unnecessary consternation by prematurely leaking word of the shutdown.
The betting among insiders in Seattle is that the leak came from the feds. Because the P-I is a partner in a joint-operating agreement with the Seattle Times, Hearst likely had to reveal its intentions in advance to the U.S. Justice Department, which oversees JOAs that operate under a waiver of the antitrust laws.
“Our understanding is the leak came out of Washington,” David McCumber, the managing editor of the P-I, said in an email. “I don't really care very much where it came from. I'm far past caring about the night from hell that it produced for me and my staff. I'm more concerned about the death of a great newspaper and the blight on a brave and talented staff – the best group I've worked with in four decades.”
We’ll probably never know for certain whodunit. But the damage is done.
The news should have reached the newspaper’s staff before the competition, said P-I reporter Kery Murakami, who was quoted in an article in the Times. “That just makes this situation worse, if that's even possible. It's like sticking and twisting the knife.”