No Baggage

The Times seeks a reporter to write about a one-newspaper town.

THE SEATTLE TIMES is sending another signal that it is edging toward voiding its federally sanctioned joint operating agreement with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. According to sources familiar with the situation, the Times is on the verge of hiring a reporter to cover the ins and outs of the JOA, as the agreement is known. The JOA has kept Seattle a two-newspaper city while most other American cities have gone to one daily. Under the JOA, which essentially is an exemption from antitrust law, the locally owned Times handles business functions for both papers—including advertising, publishing, and distribution—and splits the profits 60/40 with P-I owner Hearst Corp. The P-I has a separate newsroom but no printing press.

In normal times, there would be no call for either paper to have a reporter regularly writing about the 21-year-old JOA. But these are far from normal times. In September, Times publisher Frank Blethen told newsroom personnel that the paper had lost money in 2000 and 2001 and would post a loss this year as well. Under the JOA, three consecutive years of losses by either paper allows it to seek to void the agreement. Blethen further fueled speculation when he said on television last month that Seattle cannot support two daily newspapers and made it clear that the Times would emerge as the surviving paper.

Times watchers say hiring a reporter to cover the JOA means the paper is getting its house in order before dissolving the agreement sometime before the end of next summer. Having an existing staffer cover the story would be journalistically problematic, because it would raise questions about how independent the reporter actually would be and how aggressively he or she could cover the story. Times spokesperson Kerry Coughlin says the company has hired no JOA beat reporter, but the paper's news managers have discussed hiring such a reporter. "We're considering employing a freelancer outside the staff to cover the JOA, if need be," she says. Coughlin stresses that she doesn't know "if and when [the JOA] will be a story."

Initial newsroom gossip had the job going to Bill Richards, a former reporter for both The Wall Street Journal and the P-I. Richards, however, says he has signed no agreement to do anything for the Times.

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