IN THIS CORNER, celebrating 137 years of bringing you news in the morning, it's that scrappy, newsy underdog—the Seattle Post-Intelligencer! In this corner, toting Pulitzers and forming investigative teams at will, it's that regional giant, The Seattle Times!
And boy, are they ready to rumble.
With its March 6 switch to morning distribution, the Times is the prohibitive favorite, even if this battle sometimes has the air of an inter-squad scrimmage. In 1983, the then-financially struggling P-I signed a joint operating agreement with the Times, under which the two newspapers' noneditorial functions (circulation, advertising, production) are run by the Times as a single business entity. Authorized by the feds in hopes of maintaining newspaper competition in major cities (and preserving newsroom jobs), most JOAs have only been able to slow the demise of the smaller newspaper in the partnership. The difference here is that as afternoon newspapers steadily become a publishing anachronism, the Times discovered it had made a major mistake by signing the JOA, losing access to the growing morning newspaper market. While the original JOA gave the Times two-thirds of joint corporate profits and enabled it to block the P-I from posting its editorial content on the Internet, the long-term business impediment of being restricted to the afternoon market forced the Times to bargain for access to mornings. Last February, the two JOA partners signed the deal that makes this morning newspaper war possible.
Tough-talking longtime P-I editor/publisher J.D. Alexander says that newsroom pride will more than negate any tempering effect of the two papers' corporate ties. "Remember, they're coming in on our turf," he says, boasting of his paper's reputation for covering the city better and bringing readers the news first.
"I think the P-I tends to pursue stories in rather predictable ways," responds the Times' Executive Editor Michael Fancher. "We've always had to be good at the nondeadline content—and we can't lose that—but we have to add to it the greater sense of timeliness and urgency in the a.m. field."
A year ago, the leadership at the two papers offered up an "Only in Seattle" scenario: Perhaps our literate, cosmopolitan population could make this the first midsized city to support two thriving morning dailies. Now, with the Times and P-I entering battle mode, the sweet talk has been set aside and both staffs are focused on making sure their paper ends up the survivor.
It's hard to see this as a fair fight—the Times has about 320 editorial employees to the P-I's 170—but morale at the P-I has clearly rebounded since the announcement of head-to-head morning competition.
THE TIMES HAD TO PAY dearly to amend the JOA and enter the morning market. Hearst Corporation, owners of the P-I, upped their take of the profits to 40 percent (from the original 32 percent), extended the agreement another 50 years, and gained the right to operate a full Web site. Far more controversial in the two newsrooms were new provisions covering the possibility that Seattle could become a one-newspaper town. Under the amended agreement, if the P-I folds, Hearst would continue to receive 32 percent of the Times' profits until the JOA expires in 2083. While the agreement also addressed a possible Times failure, critics smelled conspiracy. "If they eliminated the newsroom at the P-I, that would be pure savings," grumbles Peter Horvitz, president of King County Journal Newspapers, which publishes the Eastside Journal and South County Journal, papers that compete with the Times and P-I for suburban readers. "Basically, the Times would write [Hearst] a check every year."
The nagging suspicion that the P-I was being sold down the river by Hearst has diminished greatly, at least in its own newsroom. Staffers were buoyed by recent investments, such as a newsroom remodel and a much-needed new computer system. The P-I also saw a rare management shuffle, with Alexander shifting to a job with the Hearst national division, managing editor Ken Bunting moving up to executive editor, and Los Angeles Times veteran Roger Oglesby taking over as publisher. A new managing editor will be hired later this year.
But the biggest reason for P-I elation occurred two states to the south, where Hearst bought the San Francisco Chronicle, the morning rival to its failing Examiner. This demonstration of Hearst's deep corporate pockets and determination to stay in the West Coast newspaper biz did far more for morale than new desks and Internet access. Now P-I staffers are quick to remind you that the latest round of JOA changes gives Hearst dibs on buying majority control of the Times should future generations of the Times-publishing Blethen family prove less dedicated to the concept of family-owned newspapers. (The Blethens own 50.5 percent of the Times' voting stock; the Knight-Ridder chain owns the rest.) Bunting calls the assumption that the P-I was doomed "a phony spin" that Seattle newspaper readers quickly saw through. "I do have a sense that those members of the public who bought into the 'Woe is the P-I' version of things have since come to realize that was sort of silly," he says.
The local mass communications swamp is full of alligators. Competitive challenges come from all sides: national newspapers (Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today), alternative weeklies (Seattle Weekly, The Stranger), the community press (small papers in a host of city neighborhoods and suburban cities), news Web sites (Salon, Slate), and even the two papers' own Web sites, which dish up the majority of each publication's news content free of charge. But afternoon papers like the Times have faced a particular challenge—a growing public preference for getting news in the morning. Before the switch, the Times stood as the largest afternoon paper to hold the top spot in its market—and one of just five afternoon papers among the Top 100 US dailies.
The Times argues that, despite its dominant position in the market, being stuck in the afternoon slot has kept its circulation flat, while the P-I's morning publication schedule allowed it to nearly keep pace. The result is an unprecedented balance in circulation figures for a pair of JOA papers, with the Times' daily circulation at 228,768 and the P-I's at 195,031. (The papers distribute 502,304 copies of their "combined" Sunday edition, which is almost entirely produced by the Times.)
THE P-I'S ALEXANDER and the Times' Fancher have long served as archetypes for their newspapers. Alexander is a fiery, gruff newspaperman straight out of The Front Page, the kind of guy you could imagine ripping wire copy off the ticker. Fancher is soft-spoken and cerebral, a modern newspaper manager with both reporting experience and a master's degree in business administration. He's written extensively about his theories for journalism publications—the easy availability of Fancher's words turned him into practically the main character in the book When MBAs Rule the Newsroom, ex-Times scribe Doug Underwood's scathing critique of marketing-driven modern dailies. Unlike Alexander, who stays mainly behind the scenes, Fancher serves as the Times' public face; his Sunday column is aimed at engaging the reader by explaining editorial decisions, introducing new sections or writers, or spotlighting the latest round of journalism awards. The Times is learning from Fancher's laid-back style— after making several calls to often-outspoken publisher Frank Blethen, Seattle Weekly was told by the paper's public relations director that Blethen "is going to be unavailable to be interviewed or photographed for this story." For the record, Blethen was recently quoted in Editor and Publisher magazine calling his morning rival "a headline service" and stating that "the only things people like about the P-I is that it's in the morning and that it has a terrific puzzle page."
Some observers see Alexander's new position with the national Hearst organization as a first step toward retirement. The longtime Seattle media figure has his supporters, who credit his interest in politics as keeping the P-I's coverage the best in the market. But, despite his outward competitiveness, some staffers say Alexander has been too timid about challenging the various slights the Times has dished out as dominant JOA partner.
At first glance, new P-I publisher Oglesby seems more in the Fancher mode. The 51-year-old former president of the Los Angeles Times Orange County edition has a long resume of daily newspaper experience as reporter, editor, and publisher. He's also a practicing attorney who spent several years in the LA Times' legal department. The new publisher was on a family vacation between ending his duties in Orange County and his first day at work in Seattle (March 6), and could not be reached for comment.
In published reports, Oglesby has described Orange County, which matches the Times' Orange County edition with the Orange County Register, as one of the most competitive newspaper markets in the country. While the Times dominates Southern California, the Register has long controlled its home turf, a 2.5-million population urban area south of Los Angeles which includes the cities of Anaheim and Santa Ana. In the late 1980s, the LA Times roared into battle, aggressively hiring new reporters and marketing its Orange County edition. By the mid-1990s, the Times' daily circulation hit 250,000, and the two papers had about a 60-40 market split (with the Register in the dominant position). Since then, the Orange County edition has been beset by controversy (protests by the Latino community after Times reporters tried doggedly to find cases of illegal immigrant voter fraud), falling circulation (the Register now has 64 percent of the market share), and poor morale. "The once-vicious but healthy battle over daily news coverage and circulation is today a fading memory," OC Weekly media columnist R. Scott Moxley wrote last month. While Oglesby's two years at the helm didn't cause the Orange County edition's problems, he didn't do much to solve them either, notes one observer. "I think the best indicator of performance is performance."
Oglesby has gotten off to a better start at the P-I, where he has met informally with much of the editorial staff and impressed many with his enthusiasm. "Roger is an attorney, he's a newsman, and he's also a shrewd businessman," says newly promoted exec editor Bunting. Part of his appeal is that staffers don't believe the energetic Oglesby is the type to accept the assignment of overseeing the paper's demise. His legal background and familiarity with the JOA is also popular at a newspaper whose employees don't feel their bosses have scrapped enough over apparent violations by the Times (one particular sore point: Many of the shared delivery trucks have been painted in Times colors, omitting the established Times/P-I logo).
Of course, there's a reason the Times has gotten so much practice at blowing its own horn. The paper has won three Pulitzer Prizes in the last decade, plus notching an additional three Pulitzer finalists. (P-I cartoonist David Horsey gave his paper its first Pulitzer in 1999.) The Times was selected last year as one of the Columbia Journalism Review's Top 20 US daily newspapers (checking in at number 14). Aided by the larger newshole provided by the Sunday newspaper, the Times has distinguished itself through dramatic use of photography and in-depth reporting packages on such topics as unbalanced government land swaps and the recycling of industrial wastes into fertilizer. The afternoon paper also has the superior editorial page: The P-I's tendency to slavishly endorse government initiatives and feature editorial columnists who refuse to challenge the paper's official editorial positions have combined to make their op/ed page the region's dullest.
Even Underwood, an ex-Times staffer who now works as an associate professor for the University of Washington School of Communications, says the Times has improved significantly in the seven years since he published When MBAs Rule. The paper has shown its willingness to take on Northwest sacred cows, like Boeing, Nordstrom, and the University of Washington football team, he notes. The Times has also instituted a policy banning cigarette advertising in its pages. "The organization has taken risks—even business risks—for the sake of journalism," he says. "In many ways the Times is one of the few good news stories in the newspaper industry."
BUT WHILEself-proclaimed "regional newspaper" chases big stories across the Northwest, the Times has a deserved reputation for neglecting its local beats and getting scooped by the P-I on Seattle stories. P-I staffers say their paper has been working to streamline the operation for the last few years, reassigning ineffective managers and shifting power to star performers such as Metro editor Kathy Best and assistant managing editor Neal Pattison. The paper has also begun to emulate the Times a little, boosting its efforts in marketing, event sponsorship, and reader research.
Although some at the paper assumed it would look outside for the new managing editor, Bunting isn't so sure. "It is likely going to be somebody already in the building," he says.
At a time when a much larger city like San Francisco is struggling to maintain two daily newspapers, Denver is the only other medium-sized city to match Seattle's feat. But the two-decades-long morning newspaper rivalry between the Denver Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post is the wrong place to look for lessons on what might happen here. With no JOA to hold them back, the two Denver dailies have mercilessly cut advertising and circulation prices—and their huge circulation numbers demonstrate the truth behind the old publishing adage that any newspaper can get new subscribers if they set the price low enough. Media columnist Michael Roberts of Denver alternative Westword reports that with one phone call his News subscription went from full price (about $152 a year) to $6.24 a year for six-day-a-week delivery.
Don't expect that here. From a business standpoint, the Times and P-I are almost like the movie clich頯f the two escaped convicts chained to one another. There is little short-term economic incentive for the two papers to go after each other's subscription base, but the shift to dual morning papers means that the Times will now be available in some parts of the state the P-I formerly had to itself. Like most morning papers, the P-I has a greater percentage of its total circulation in single-copy sales (about 20 percent to the Times' 10 percent), the area most affected by head-to-head competition. The challenge to both papers is to bring in new subscribers, says Fancher: "The JOA creates a tremendous disincentive to essentially swap readers from one paper to another."
The Times is working to keep its own readers in the fold, with tactics ranging from coupon books and free museum tickets to an early February set of reader meetings with editors and columnists at Tully's coffee shops around the region. Subscribers have also been granted two free weeks of Times delivery after the switch with another free two weeks coming next year if they're still receiving the paper.
Times officials know the shift to mornings is a big deal for many readers; they were stunned when they mailed cards to 190,000 readers asking for their opinions on the switch and got a 33 percent response rate. "That was just astonishing," says Mei-Mei Chan, Times vice president for circulation. "That tells you how much our readers care about our paper and want to talk about it." Although the Times has been transitioning to adult delivery crews over the last decade, the morning switch eliminated the last 1,000 of the paper's teenage carriers. At least in the short-term, the delivery system will be plagued by inefficiencies; due to union contracts, different staffs will continue to deliver the two newspapers.
WHILE FANCHER may not be after P-I readers, he often pursues P-I staffers. The Times has lured away seasoned reporters from the P-I on a regular basis over the years, including such notables such as investigative reporter Duff Wilson, editorial columnist Casey Corr, and gossip queen Jean Godden. The Times has snared relatively few P-I staffers in recent months— veteran reporter Steve Miletich and business columnist Bruce Ramsay being two notable exceptions—but not for lack of trying. Alexander's heart-to-heart talk with star sports columnist Art Thiel to keep him in the P-I fold has already become newsroom legend. Several other prominent staffers have also spurned offers from the Times. Alexander wonders how this thirst for P-I talent fits in with the Times' attitude of superiority. "It's always amused me that they could beat their breasts [about the P-I's supposed lack of quality]," he says, "and when they need somebody they come right here."
The Times has had its own problems keeping staffers on board—the paper experienced a 15 percent turnover rate last year, including a significant exodus of business writers and columnists. While the Times' proven ability to draw quality replacements means the situation is hardly crippling, it's still a major case of poor timing.
So what's ahead for Seattle readers in coming months? "Expect a lot of bold headlines," cracks one insider. Both papers are expected to trot out investigative packages during the first month of dual morning operation—kind of a journalistic version of Sweeps Week. One ex-staffer predicts the two dailies will engage in more "ambulance-chasing" type coverage, continuing the recent trend of milking tragedies for human interest appeal.
But Times staffers very likely welcome the shift to morning publication. The afternoon publication schedule tends to stretch the process of story writing over parts of two days, with a writer completing a story in the afternoon, then seeing it rewritten in the morning to reflect new developments. Afternoon distribution also means that readers in outlying areas, including the state capital of Olympia, don't see the paper until around dinner time, which reduces its influence.
Arguably, Seattle might be that special city that can support two dailies. The financial problems that forced the P-I into the JOA were caused more by slipping advertising revenues than low circulation. But Professor Clifford Rowe of Pacific Lutheran University isn't so sure that both newspapers can thrive indefinitely. "We're in an economic boom time, so everybody's doing pretty well," says Rowe, a 13-year veteran of the Times. "But when that changes, it's going to be tough on both the new media and some of the existing (papers)."
A more immediate hit may be taken by the Eastside Journal, which has tightened its focus on local news since the Times began an all-out effort to beef up news coverage and circulation east of Lake Washington. Publisher Horvitz and editor Tom Wolfe are taking a stay-the-course attitude. "We just intend to do what we do best—emphasize local news—and let them play out their game plan," Wolfe says. Horvitz says the short-term effects on the Eastside Journal will be minimal. "We have spent many years working to differentiate our newspapers from the Times and the P-I," he says. "We believe that our readers are reading us for different reasons and they will continue to read us."
Underwood says the Journal has gone too far in its local bent by dropping its Olympia bureau. "I can't take seriously a journalistic operation that goes in that direction," he says. "What should happen to the Eastside Journal is they should be damn scared."
Fancher notes that the Times already distributes more papers on the Eastside than the Journal (the Times east zone edition has a circulation of 52,856 as compared with the Journal's total circulation of 26,927). "We'll continue to be aggressive about our coverage over there," he says. "We are the Eastside's newspaper, there's just no question about that."
The failure of either the Times or P-I would bring tough times for the surviving partner. Historically, newspaper readers are such creatures of habit that when a big-city daily folds, its competitor only picks up about half its circulation. The Times is also expected to lose a chunk of subscribers when it shifts to morning distribution. However, the long-term prospect of a market monopoly has an obvious commercial, if not reader, appeal.
The Eastside Journal's Horvitz argues that the JOA amendments have sealed Seattle's fate as an eventual one-newspaper town. While the battle of the newsrooms may provide short-term excitement, the move to two morning papers and the business deal cut by the Times and P-I "create the economic incentive to combine the two newspapers in the future," he argues.
Asked whether the Seattle will be a two-newspaper town a decade from now, former Times sports reporter Elliott Almond wasn't so sure.
"The short answer is I'm afraid that it's not going to be," says Almond, now a staffer with the San Jose Mercury News. "I think as soon as they entered into that agreement, it signaled the horrifying death of one of those papers. As fierce rivals as they are with each other, nobody wants to see the other paper go down. One, you don't want to see other people losing jobs. But it's also bad for Seattle."
"I would say that they'll both still be around in 10 years," says Underwood. "Farther down the road, I'd say my vision darkens."
Almond adds one more piece of advice about the coming newspaper war: Enjoy it. "As least for the time being," he says. "Seattle is going to be a heck of a newspaper town."