A bright light in Seattle, about to go out
By Jon Hahn
When I was transplanted here in 1978, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was a statewide paper to be reckoned with.
The distinctive, bright-orange P-I delivery boxes were everywhere as you drove through the rolling hills of the Palouse, along the hardtop roads in the San Juan Island group and the wheat country in eastern Washington.
In the rural counties, away from the Seattle metro area, many of those delivery boxes were the old metal style, indicating to me decades, and even generations, of faithful subscribers.
One of my favorite newspaper photos shows a Seattle Post-Intelligencer office – a ramshackle affair with a wooden sidewalk fronting a dirt street – up in Alaska during the Gold Rush.
They were everywhere. Firstest with the mostest.
But those days are long gone. Now, it appears the 146-year-old daily is going belly up. And no one is going to live happily ever after.
The P-I (it always has been affectionately called “Pee-Eye”) was considered the People’s Paper, with a feisty anti-Establishment reputation. And it was a power to be reckoned with, like Washington’s then U.S. senators, Warren Magnuson and Henry (Scoop) Jackson.
Our annual Sports Star of the Year gala was considered the high point of the athletic year. Our roving storytellers, such as the late John O’Ryan, were known to, and loved by, folks from the far-northeast Okanogon to the mouth of the Columbia River.
This was pretty good company for a young Chicago reporter who’d never been west of St. Louis. And something about the P-I smelled like a real newspaper when I arrived in 1978 after the shutdown of my hometown paper, the Chicago Daily News.
There was a newspaper bar – really a cocktail lounge, much fancier than Billy Goat Tavern on Lower Wacker Drive in Chicago – right across the street. Maybe not the kind or amount of social electricity that crackles in Chicago – Seattle never has had a lot of political corruption or chicanery – but it was a happening place that was on the rebound from an earlier downturn, called the Boeing Recession.
Downtown newspaper stands still did a land-office business. And the P-I’s street sales were very strong.
But the Hearst Corp. later claimed that, even then, the P-I was losing money. It wasn’t long before they joined the Seattle Times in an unholy Joint Operating Agreement. And the Times joined the P-I with morning editions.
Both papers made improvements and investments, if not to stem the tide, then to try staying ahead of it. The P-I went from a page-scanner system to Atex and eventually networked PCs. But they did it on the cheap, and many of us had to share PCs.
It took me most of a year to get permission to bring in my old Royal Standard to take notes when the desktop PC was being used by my cubicle partner.
The Times built a slick new office and printing plant in north suburban Bothell. I never saw the inside of it, but I spent a bunch of bone-chilling nights alongside a burn barrel with some Teamster Union sympathy-strikers during the 2000-2001 Guild strike against both papers.
Management put out smaller papers with imported Hearst scabs and we put out a nifty strike paper.
But no one’s going back to work this time. A handful of P-I staff has been offered jobs with the online edition, but most of the 170-odd journalists will be out on the bricks in a gawdawful unemployment environment.
Even before that strike, circulation at both papers had atrophied. Street sales dried up and both coverage and circulation concentrated on Seattle and the collar counties. Management even ordered me NOT to seek columns outside that area.
With the paper living what almost certainly will be its final days, comments from P-I staffers, former staffers, other media grunts and TV’s talking heads all use, and over-use, the word “sad,” and they don’t mean the Seasonal Affective Disorder that comes from the near-constant drizzle and gray damp here. The word seems to sum-up the frustration of not being able to do a damn thing to stop the inevitable.
But some synapse finally closed in my system and I am beyond sad. I’m pissed. Comes to mind a Dylan Thomas verse:
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
It’s NOT just the economy, stupid. The paper is closing in no small way because of those of us who’d rather get our “news” online, on our cell phones, on our car radios and other electronic media.
Those alternatives aren’t bad, or evil, or even the enemy, which is how we newspaper folks often characterized them. We grumbled but accepted the new media and admitted they were pretty slick.
But like thousands of (soon-to-be-former) readers, I’m something of a Luddite. I want the in-depth news of real, ink-stain-on-the-kitchen-counter newspapers that dig and sift for weeks and months and give you more information on one page than a full, half-hour news broadcast.
And I don’t want to sit in front of some damn terminal and click my way through copy bordered with blinking advertisements. Our dog brings the P-I into the kitchen after breakfast and we spread it out on the counter in that read’nfeed protocol common to many homes. But not enough homes.
So when the P-I’s three-story landmark globe-and-revolving equator sign stops spinning down there on Elliott Bay, we all have to share some of the blame for that. Sorta like that line from the old Pogo Possum comic strip:
We have met the enemy, and he is us!
When a not-so-long-ago recession hit Boeing and Seattle hard, someone posted a commercial billboard message:
Will the last person leaving Seattle please turn out the lights?
One of Seattle’s brightest lights is about to go out.