Patty's Papers

Will Murray try to save the JOA? Does anybody care?

SEATTLEITES AREN'T exactly going apoplectic over the prospect of The Seattle Times possibly dissolving its joint operating agreement with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and nudging the city toward one-daily-newspaper status. But it might not be long before one of Washington's leading public figures becomes involved in efforts to keep Seattle a bi-paper town.

That would be Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. Motivated in part by a desire to ensure that two dailies hit the newsstands each morning, Murray was instrumental two years ago in dragging management and labor before a federal mediator during the Seattle newspaper strike, a move that yielded a settlement between the Times and its workers.

"She may get involved again," says Liz Brown, administrative officer of the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild, which represents employees at the papers. The union recently began a push to round up influential citizens concerned about maintaining two newspapers.

Murray's D.C. office says the senator thinks that more media outlets mean a better-informed citizenry (a stance that ought to win her more fans than her recent musings on global politics). At the moment, however, she has yet to link up with any official effort in Seattle, says Todd Brewster, her communications director. That's probably because there isn't a movement to join. Town Hall's David Brewster, the founding editor of this paper, led a legal fight to nix the JOA when it was first proposed by the U.S. Department of Justice in the early 1980s. But so far no one has asked him to inveigh against a possible newspaper monopoly.

THE GUILD, MEANWHILE, would like the P-I's owner, the privately held Hearst Corp., to respond to the union's request for financial records. The union wants to see if the P-I is making money or if the corporate parent is absorbing losses. Last month, the Times responded to a similar request from the Guild by sitting down with union reps and discussing in general terms its recent losses. Under terms of the JOA, if either paper sustains three consecutive years of losses, it can invoke a provision that calls for negotiations between the Times and Hearst about closing one of the papers. The Times recently announced that it had, indeed, lost money in 2002, a third straight year of red ink.

Brown credits the privately held Times for at least talking. She's received nothing but silence from Hearst. But then, P-I employees are used to the silent treatment—and they are sick of it. P-I reporters are furious that Hearst won't state that it intends to fight the Times' apparently imminent move to dissolve the JOA.

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