Monday, March 16, 2009

A bright light in Seattle, about to go out

Jon Hahn, a colleague at the Chicago Daily News, joined the staff of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer when our paper closed in 1978. He retired as a columnist in 2003 to take up things like surf fishing, clam digging and felling trees. But he never stopped loving the paper that is closing with tomorrow's edition.

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.

13 Comments:

Anonymous upper wacker said...

Place in Chicago is the Billy Goat.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Jim Bryant said...

What a way to write Jack the Crrbber. Tell it like it is!

1:14 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

I have to say, I appreciate Alan's respect for the newspaper industry. It's more than I can say for the haters and self-appointed gurus like Jeff Jarvis.
Come vote on my poll. How long will the online P-I survive?

5:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nice to read a passionate (former) newspaper reporter’s writing. Maybe the P-I wouldn’t be closing if they had hired (or kept) more writers like you.

However, a two newspaper town was a rare situation even before the Internet and this “great recession”. While I don’t have any first hand knowledge of the newspapers in Seattle, it’s been my experience that newspaper unions (except maybe the Guild) are mostly tone-deaf to their communities and the realities of the media landscape. RIP P-I and let’s hope it’s not too late to “save” the Seattle Times.

6:50 PM  
Anonymous Marc said...

I nearly accepted a job at the PI in 1998. Even back then, there were concerns that the JOA and competition from The Times would eventually end the PI's long-standing presence. I'm sad to see it go, too, but at least a few of us in the industry are actually surprised it has lasted this long.

8:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll state what seems obvious to anyone without an emotional attachment to ink on dead trees:

We are not the enemy for accepting a new delivery mechanism for news. The enemies are the complacent newspaper managements that failed to adapt to a changing industry - and they and their employees are suffering the consequences.

The printed newspaper will die, and that's a good thing. Because the transition to online news wasn't managed well by incompetent newspaper managers, many good journalists will lose jobs, and that's a bad thing. But in the long run, news will survive, and be better for not having to pay for physical print production and distribution.

Accept it, and be part of the change.

8:47 AM  
Blogger Aimée said...

Sure, the ink people have to change, but ink will not go away.
I think that newspapers have to get away from the 'daily' notion (except for online news) and start publishing ink versions maybe 2 or 3 times a week, with those long long in depth and quality articles that we like to read at lunch, with our coffee, or on the weekend.
Most important : hire really really good journalists that we can have faith in - the MOST important thing these days with all this information overload - what I am looking for, and am willing to PAY for, are highly qualified writers who know what they are talking about. Hey that is a rarity these days!
I lived in Seattle for many years (now in Paris where things are not much better for the news industry) and although I never agreed with the P-I's politics, I'll be sad to see them go.
I *will* miss their Mariner coverage - anybody know if they're going to keep that up?
All the best to the online team, hope it works!

1:54 PM  
Blogger Edward said...

Nice post about the legacy of the P-I. It will be missed. Thanks for writing it. But you gotta wonder: Where today is a major metro paper with "a feisty anti-Establishment reputation"?

So two questions: Have we lost 'em all? And does this have anything to do with the decline of journalism?

2:17 PM  
Anonymous Brier said...

Nice to hear your voice again, Jon. My dad and I used to savor your columns in the morning.

2:52 PM  
Blogger Julian said...

"And I don’t want to sit in front of some damn terminal and click my way through copy bordered with blinking advertisements."

Neither do I, but it's too tempting not to when it's all free online and, more importantly, when the tools for online news presentation and distribution are more powerful than anything newsprint has offered.

I wish I had to pay for news, really -- or rather, I wish I had to pay for the reporting and insights of great journalists. But growing up with the Internet, I never knew what loyalty to a media organization meant; I only respected the concept. I've been studying journalism since high school in New Jersey, where I was just getting to know The (Bergen County) Record when newspapers started making their news available online for free, and I saw it all. I moved indiscriminately across news Web sites. None had my loyalty; none could hope to gain it. I had my favorite reporters and columnists, but I didn't have to peak at other parts of the papers (I did so only as a journalism student), and there was no need to care about or know who was paying these journalists (I cared only because I hoped to make a living doing the same thing).

I've adopted the author's nostalgia for a world I never knew. Later, my friends joked about Googlezon, and it offended and scared me. I was naive. And, perhaps, so were people twice my age with all my foresight at the helms of the most powerful media companies.

As someone (and a very discouraged someone) just entering the profession, here's what I hope happens: Newspapers move entirely to the Web with leaner staffs and a mandate to innovate with Web technology until a business model emerges that allows for the spare-no-expense pursuit of truth a dwindling number of large newspapers are known for. I kind of hope that business model involves something portable, lightweight, and easy on the eyes, like the Kindle, because "I don’t want to sit in front of some damn terminal and click my way through copy" either, although I will suffer the ads if that's what finances full-time, in-depth reporting, analysis and commentary. (Maybe I should disable my ad blockers...)

And that's what everyone talks about: let the media evolve with a better medium, stop killing trees, let go, your newsprint is staining my kitchen counter. But who's talking about the people in this enlightened future who won't have access to substantive news because computers, Internet connections and e-readers are still too expensive; and the local free public library can't afford to allow patrons more than an hour of computer time per day?

The inexpensive distribution of news empowers everyone, and that in turn empowers our country. Is that line of social thinking partly at fault for how slowly traditional media have been moving to a medium still too expensive for too many?

6:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So quickly we forget the thousands who actually print the paper. Where is your concern for them? That's the problem with this country. We have never supported the people who live around us. If its cheaper for me to hell with you!
I feel sorry for everyone losing their job. However you had to be blind not to see it happening in the newspaper industry. It started long before the internet. That is just the final nail!
In the fifties almost every home had two newspapers delivered. Even when I delivered a newspaper in 1963 forty percent of my customers still got two papers. But in the 1980s - funny - during the last recession - it was the beginning of the end for newspapers. I watched circulation drop here at our local newspaper every single year for 20 years. Oh maybe a slight increase one year but never did any increase surpass numbers from the late 1970s. Never!
As so many of you have pointed out, at least the trees will be safe!

9:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Craigslist.

6:38 PM  
Blogger Luis Garcia lgarcia@competive.com said...

It's the sign of times, we need to see that this also comes with a generational shift -ouch!

And yes who didnt like the (printed) newspapers and magazines at the kitchen and coffee shops, but maybe we need to ask, how do we strive in this new scenario? I am sure quality journalism is still needed.

Think for this: It's only the printing in print media that's dying, new technologies more friendly and more efficient will continue to appear, and journalism will change along. If you want to see this facts as enemies, then I think, you have selected your role in this change.

And yes many trees will be safer. We will find a way as the wolrd changes.

2:07 PM  

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