Sunday, January 11, 2009

Scoopless in Seattle: P-I beat on own sad news

The only insult that can compound the injury of having your newspaper shot out from under you is to hear the news first from a competing television station.

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.”


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Friday (1/9/09) morning, the P-I's story title was "Report of possible P-I sale surprises papers’ leaders."

After nearly three years of steadily declining earnings for the newspaper industry, I suggest anyone in the business that was "surprised" is too stupid to be a reporter.

Walter Abbott

8:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Traditionally, newspapers have used anonymous leaks to hurt other people.

This is almost like karma.

12:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

News people should be the last folks to complain about a leak.

5:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the PI were a better newspaper, it might have gotten the scoop before KING. Perhaps it's time for the PI to die?

3:05 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is unfortunate. But the sad fact, I believe, is that newspapers have become too corporate and conservative to survive. The last great opportunity for newspapers was to expose the corrupt Bush Administration and all its misdeeds. Instead, newspapers lost a their watchdog status by cheerleading everything Bush did long after it was obvious to the public that the administration was dangerously inept.

6:53 AM  
Blogger BobH said...

Does anyone else notice the correlation between the name "Anonymous" and the inanity of said comments?

8:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The folks at the P-I have been living in a dream world for far too long. Seattle does not need two newspapers. It barely has the circulation base for one. Two newspapers basically reporting the same news does not work. If P-I reporters were so crafty, why didn't they get the "leak?" It goes to show their irrelevance: scooped on their own obit. That is what on their tombstone

11:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Anonymi here all presume that reporters are supposed to be buddy buddy with the corporate leaders and owners, who would have told them the paper was for sale. Hmmmm. And if the reporters were tick-close to the owners, or shareholders, or corporate, then of course let's presume the Anonymi wouldn't have a problem with that relationship. Enough of the ignorant reporter-bashing; the higher ups should have known, it's their job to be the liaisons between corporate and the local division. It wasn't the reporters' watch, as far as their jobs go. They were busy making police calls, sitting at public meetings, investigating how tax money is spent, telling stories about people in the community, covering snowstorms turned into fiascos by the city, covering floods that halted commerce. They were busy, well, doing things your lazy asses weren't. So puh-lease, put some pants on, scrabble from your lightless cave and look around outside. What part of the PI reporters' jobs are you going to start doing, if you think it's as easy as, well, thinking. (Oh, and just because you think it doesn't make it true. That's lesson one.)

1:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Gloating about people losing their jobs is - I'm gonna say it - un-American.

10:49 AM  

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