The Seattle Times' new mantra is . . . "It's in the P-I." The talent, that is. Just as the Times prepares to move to morning publication and head-on competition with the Post-Intelligencer, under their newly revised joint operating agreement, it's staged what may be its biggest raid ever on the P-I's staff. But this expedition, accompanied by much sneering and blustering over the P-I's prospects, may have backfired. So far, Fairview Fannie has lured just one P-I reporter over to the dark side. And after sending a wave of anxiety through the P-I newsroom, the Times' attacks have sparked new defiance and determination in its partner/rival.
Times managing editor Alex MacLeod brushes off questions about recruiting from the P-I, except to note tauntingly that "there are a lot of people over there who deserve to work at a first-class newspaper," and to confirm the case that needs no confirmation: courthouse reporter Steve Miletich, who started at the P-I when the JOA began, the only one so far to take Fairview Fannie's offer. Miletich concedes the recent uncertainty concentrated his mind, but insists he switched for "professional growth reasons . . . to take advantage of the [Times'] resources and commitment. If the offer had come six months or a year ago, I would have taken it."
Thanks, but no thanks
According to newsroom buzz, Miletich is just one of 13 P-I newsies (including at least one steady freelancer and several copy editors) the Times has lately wooed. Aerospace reporter James Wallace confirms he's another, "but they haven't made an offer, and I haven't made a decision." Douglas McLennan, a longtime contributor who writes the Arts Beat column, is likewise waiting to see what develops: "I'm talking to them. The P-I's been good to me, but I need to explore my options." One consideration is McLennan's dismay at a contract the P-I recently threw at him. "They wanted me to sign away all my rights now and in perpetuity."
Several P-I staffers say the Times has also courted the P-I's answer to Tracy and Hepburn, investigative reporter Andy Schneider and metro editor Kathy Best, who are married. MacLeod says not so, but Schneider neither confirms nor denies: "All I can tell you is I have no intention of leaving the P-I."
Likewise editorial cartoonist David Horsey, who says the Times came after him last spring and that one Times staffer recently called again. Horsey admits he "gave it pretty strong consideration then"—a sign of bravery or desperation, considering the Times' nasty habit of dumping cartoonists. But he says he's now reassured that "Hearst really wants to be in the newspaper business," that the P-I might win a morning face-off, and that "there are possibilities down the line of [Hearst] owning the Times as well."
And he stingingly showed the "Fairview Fannie," crowing, "I'll have all day to tell people how wonderful I am!"
Thiel hangs in, J.D. kicks ass
big reassurance for Horsey and others was the outcome of star sports columnist Art Thiel's tango with the Times—a contract drama recalling those Thiel regularly covers in the Valley of the Balls. For some colleagues, the prospect of losing Thiel loomed as the beginning of the end. But the P-I's often-aloof editor/publisher, J.D. Alexander, had a heart-to-heart and apparently got through to Thiel. Afterward, Thiel e-mailed his colleagues that he'd been persuaded that Hearst really was in the fight and that he'd persuaded Alexander "to demonstrate the same commitment and passion to all of us that he showed yelling across his desk at me."
The same day, Alexander sent out his own memo, re-welcoming Thiel as "friend and leader" and declaring, "I hope that each of you will make it abundantly clear that he and I can count on your readiness to kick plenty of Fairview's abundant ass."
Battle of the screeds
That e-mail pep rally was just the latest in a war of staff memos waged by MacLeod and the P-I's editors. First, MacLeod sent his people a four-pager that began by recalling "the sense of loss" he felt 18 years ago when the Times inked the JOA with the P-I rather than killing it in open competition. Hearst, he declared, "sold the P-I's future without a second thought," even though its "pockets have always been far deeper than ours. . . . It clearly doesn't believe the P-I will be the surviving newspaper, nor does it care. What it cares about is a steady stream of money flowing from Seattle. . . . Hearst's lack of commitment to its newspapers, and to the people [at them], isn't new. Hearst has consistently starved its newspapers while pocketing big profits."
True to the porous nature of newsrooms, MacLeod's memo soon circulated around the P-I; you have to wonder if he intended it as psy-ops. Alexander and P-I managing editor Ken Bunting speedily e-mailed a rebuttal, condemning the "inaccuracies and downright dishonest interpretations" in Mac-Leod's "scurrilous screed" and insisting that "Hearst has not pulled the plug on the P-I, and no amount of vitriolic hot air from Fairview Avenue, whether on news pages or on internal memos, can make it so." Bunting and Alexander went on to detail new outlays to counter the Times. These include more staff, more news hole, and maybe expanded quarters, plus a newsroom remodel and new computer system. This last was apparently already in the works, and overdue; the P-I still uses a hoary, crash-prone ATEX system. The office buzz is that Hearst vows to spend $10 million to beef up the P-I, including $1 million for new hires; rumors of raids on Times staff are already perking.
The P-I brass also invited newsies to join in "strategic planning" and set up a schedule of meetings that may rival that at the Times itself, which was once famous for holding so many it assigned an assistant managing editor to keep track of them all. But the biggest boost to the P-I's will to fight may have come from the Times itself, with its "scurrilous screeds" and T-shirts showing the Times eagle seizing the P-I globe. "The Times' greatest weakness in the coming showdown is their arrogance," opines Horsey, "their assumption that not only would anybody in the P-I be dying to work there, but any reader in Seattle would be dying to switch loyalties."
Which one's Serbia?
Such dissing and hissing between two papers that have for 16 years enjoyed a lucrative joint monopoly, under a special exemption from antitrust law! But remember what happened when the lid of communism was lifted from Yugoslavia, and the Serbs', Croats', and Bosniaks' long-suppressed hostility boiled over? The JOA has artificially lidded competitive impulses. With it partly lifted, watch out.