The Justice Department is trying to determine what difference it would make to Seattle if the joint operating agreement (JOA) between the city's two daily newspapers were allowed to die. It is not clear whether its findings will weigh on the outcome of efforts by the locally controlled Seattle Times to terminate its two-decade agreement with Hearst's Seattle Post-Intelligencer. But based on the questions the government lawyers have been asking around town, the past success of the Seattle JOA could be the key to its future.
It can be argued that Seattle is no better able to support two dailies than any other city that has seen all but one newspaper fall to economic reality. But each newspaper that died took some piece of the soul of the city it served to the grave. It's too early to mourn the P-I, but it's not too early to reflect on what Seattle loses if it goes.
The question being asked by Justice's antitrust division is: Has the JOA worked? Ask Times Publisher Frank Blethen. He has repeatedly called the Seattle arrangement "one of the most successful JOAs in history." Of course, he was referring to only the first 20 years of a deal that was supposed to last another 80.
The Seattle agreement is one of a couple dozen like it across the country, forged under provisions of the Newspaper Preservation Act. Congress passed the measure in 1970 in response to pressure from some of the nation's most powerful media companies. Hearst was one of the leaders of that effort. The law is essentially an exemption from federal antitrust laws, allowing newspapers to save money by merging their noneditorial functions while continuing to compete in the news arena. The justification was the overriding public interest in maintaining two separate editorial voices in a community.
THE TIMES IS SEEKING to exercise an escape clause in its agreement with Hearst declaring three consecutive years of red ink, from 2000 to 2002. Hearst has challenged the Times' claim of losses in 2000, saying that the strike of employees at both papers constituted an extraordinary loss that should make it an exception under provisions of the contract. Hearst has also asserted, in filings in King County Superior Court, that the P-I could not continue to publish if the JOA were to be terminated. Blethen says that should the JOA continue, it could eventually bleed the Times financially and put its family ownership in jeopardy.
But for now, it is the fate of the P-I that is in doubt, and that makes both crucial and timely this question: What is Seattle without the P-I?
Some would argue that there are enough competing voices around to pick up the slackalternative weeklies, radio, television, bloggers, neighborhood weeklies, telephone poles. But the truth is that metropolitan daily newspapers like the P-I and the Times are the lead agenda-setters for a community. They are the news factories that produce most of the original content the public gets in its daily diet of information from all sources. Yes, more people get their news from television, but TV is more of a processor of material that has already been printed. Take down one of the news factories, and the input to the public information system is diminished.
The Value of the P-I
It's hard to find anybody who will say that the loss of the P-I would be good riddance. Even Don C. Brunell, a lobbyist for the Association of Washington Business, a group that often finds itself at odds with P-I editorial positions, wants to keep it around. He is a big fan of the paper's two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist, David Horsey. Brunell reads several newspapers every day. "I think diversity of opinion is important whether one agrees with the editorial or commentary" or not, he says. "I would miss that as much as Horsey."
Environmentalists would be especially stricken should the P-I cease publishing. While most concede that the Times does a decent job on environmental subjects, they believe that the P-I has been most consistent and persistent in its coverage. Solveig Torvik, when a member of the P-I editorial board, closely watched developments at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and regularly reminded readers that there is lots of very bad stuff buried out there. Former environmental writer Rob Taylor unleashed a damning series on dairy runoff in the early 1990s. "Those problems were widely known for decades," says Tom Geiger, outreach director for the Washington Environmental Council. "When Rob gave it front-page coverage, it shifted the debate and made the government act. It brought the dairy industry to the table."
Geiger also considered former P-I investigative reporter Andrew Schneider's reporting on the health problems caused by an asbestos mine's waste in Libby, Mont., to be first-rate. Schneider and reporter Robert McClure also teamed up for a project looking at the impact of the archaic mining laws on the environment.
McClure, Lise Olsen, and Lisa Stiffler produced a monumental series on the health of Puget Sound, published last year. For Kathy Fletcher, director of People for Puget Sound, the loss of the P-I due to termination of the JOA would be tragic. "The P-I's coverage of the state of Puget Sound was marvelous," she says. "It was a front-page series, and there has been great follow-up by the reporters. Their work greatly increased the public awareness of problems with the Sound." Fletcher was quick to say that the Times has done a good job, too, over the years. But for now, Fletcher, Geiger, and other environmental activists feel the P-I is more attentive to their issues.
IN 1988, WHEN no other news media could handle the story of Gary Little, the King County Superior Court judge who had, for years, been suspected of molesting young boys, both while he was a private-school instructor and a juvenile-court judge, the P-I took it on. The Times had investigated the story, but dropped it, as did KING-TV. Reporter Duff Wilson (now with the Times) convinced five of Little's victims to provide sworn statements. He also discovered the existence of a six-year-old report by the King County prosecutor's office, previously unknown to the public, detailing several allegations against the judge of improper contacts with juvenile defendants. The report had been submitted to the Judicial Conduct Commission, which ignored it. On the evening the paper went to press with the story, Little killed himself in the King County Courthouse. The P-I had to weather an initial storm of criticism, but public opinion eventually turned in favor of the newspaper's decision to publish the story.
Then there was the time that reporter James Wallace stumbled across a truck driver with a story to tell. As a result of his investigation, the paper published an expos頯f the long-standing practice of hauling liquid foodstuffs in the same tanker trucks that had just returned from hauling toxic chemicals. Steam cleaning of the tankers was considered to be sufficient by the trucking companies, and there were no regulations against it. Wallace's series resulted in quick legislation at the state and federal levels outlawing the practice.
They Let Their Hair Down
For P-I staff people who wanted to print the news and raise some hell, there was, during the 1960s and most of the 1970s, some freedom to do just that. Hearst seemed willing to allow some freedom in the coverage of local issues, almost, it seemed, as compensation for being such a tightwad owner. The P-I was a bit of rock 'n' roll, while the Times remained, until the early 1980s, a bit of Lawrence Welk. The Times was the newspaper of the downtown establishment. The P-I was the newspaper for everyone else, or so it seemed. Over time, there were plenty of stories the P-I ran that the downtown establishment wished it hadn't and which the Times didn't.
Joel Connelly, who today is the P-I's Northwest columnist, was one to take the leash and see how far he could run it out before it cut into his windpipe. In the late 1970s, Connelly started asking some hard questions about the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) known then and forever after as "whoops." Encouraged by the state's political leadership, including then-U.S. Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson, the system had set out to build five nuclear power plants, pretty much all at once. Reporters rarely bothered to attend WPPSS meetings, which were often held in Richland. Connelly started paying attention and reporting on the huge cost overruns, construction flaws, and management boondoggles. Nuclear-power boosters howled in protest, but Connelly kept up the pressure. It would be years before The Seattle Times and other media caught on. The spectacular collapse of the WPPSS nuclear-power-plant program led to what was then the worst government bond failure in history, costing investors billions.
There was innovation. At a time when most newspapers were still putting out "women's" pages, P-I style editor Sally Raleigh converted those pages to a feature section of interest to both sexes, printing lifestyle articles and cultural commentary, and giving prominent space to emerging feminist issues and writers. Susan Paynter, still a P-I columnist today, wore miniskirts to work and put a lot of sassy attitude into her writing. What could Hearst have said, anyway? Around the same time, Helen Gurley Brown was blazing new trails for women's- interest journalism and raising feminist hell in Cosmopolitan, another Hearst property.
Ruth Howell ran the editorial pages in the late 1970s, giving them a decided tilt to the left. She was adamantly against the Vietnam War, loathed Richard Nixon, and was a strong environmentalist.
AND THOSE WERE the days when the late Emmett Watson reigned as the city's columnist supreme, unequaled in his erudition, unshakable as the keeper of the city's soul, the protector of Lesser Seattle. Watson was unrivaled for more than 20 years as he three-dotted his way into the hearts of readers with wry little tidbits called in by his adoring readers. His column was almost identical in style to that of his friend Herb Caen, the San Francisco Chronicle columnist, but Watson's fans thought him to be much better at it. Watson's grizzled features belied a soft heart and a golden touch with words. But every now and then, he would thunder over some injustice or rail at Richard Nixon, whom he despised. For many of his devoted readers, Watson was the P-I during his reign. Watson quit in 1982 because the publisher objected to his barbed shots at George Argyros, then owner of the Seattle Mariners. He went to the Times and never again wrote a three-dot column.
The P-I's newsroom culture in the 1960s and 1970s was far more freewheeling than what the staid management of the Times could have handled. At the Times, reporters wore sport coats and ties and trimmed their hair neatly and were largely a well- behaved bunch. The P-I was a newspaper that tolerated long hair and beards among its male staff at a time when those were firing offenses in many of the country's newsrooms. It would, in the mid-1960s, send future novelist Tom Robbins and gonzo writer Darrell Bob Houston, both then copy editors, and cartoonist Ray Collins to cover Timothy Leary's LSD conference in Berkeley, Calif. It ran a Hearst-dictated editorial endorsing Richard Nixon in 1972 but then allowed a group comprising more than half its news staff to take out an ad in their own newspaper endorsing George McGovern.
Political junkies from both ends of the spectrum would deeply mourn the P-I, which historically has shown more zest for politics and willingness to tilt at windmills than its crosstown rival. Shelby Scates, a courtly North Carolinian with a soft drawl and sharp intellect, was the P-I's chief political writer through much of the period between the early 1960s and the late 1980s, when he joined the paper's editorial page. Mike Layton, a Vietnam veteran and former United Press International reporter, became the P-I's Olympia bureau chief in the early 1970s. Layton and Scates could make politicians tremble.
"Those of us who do politics appreciate the P-I, although not every minute," says Blair Butterworth, a longtime political consultant to campaigns in the Northwest and elsewhere in the country. "My introduction to the P-I was Shelby Scates and Mike Layton giving a ration of shit to Len Sawyer (a Democratic legislative kingpin), Dixy Lee Ray, and other people I worked with." Butterworth handled the campaign that got the late Ray elected governor in 1976 as a "conservative" Democrat, though many questioned those political credentials.
Scates, who once worked at The Washington Post, and Layton both gave Ray fits. Ray was a professor of marine biology at the University of Washington who became the director of the Pacific Science Center. She also was a former chairperson of the Atomic Energy Commission and a great believer in promoting nuclear power in the state as well as allowing supertankers into Puget Sound. Layton would get into shouting matches with Ray at press conferences. Compounding Ray's P-I-inflicted woes was the work of cartoonist Collins, who constantly jabbed Ray for her support of oil-tanker traffic on the Sound with his strip Cecil C. Attle and Dipstick Duck.
"The P-I is the political newspaper of record in this state," says Rick Cocker, former press secretary to Sen. Henry Jackson. "The P-I puts more emphasis on politics. When a story runs in the P-I in the morning, it is picked up by broadcast. The P-I has the best opinion page, stronger opinions."
Goofballs, Tricksters, Poets
Beyond the sheer output of news coverage by the P-I is the blend of personalities that make up the newspaper. Its character is the product of more than a century of evolution. Every person who ever worked there left a bit of DNA behind that went into making the P-I what it is. It's as though there was always something in the P-I's genetic makeup that assured that a good reporter with an attitude would find a niche somewhere in the newsroom, along with a crazy collection of would-be and did-become novelists, creative goofballs, tricksters, poets, and booze-soaked rascals scattered among the worker bees.
Frank Herbert, author of the Dune series and one of the most successful sci-fi novelists of all time, wrote the first Dune book while covering higher education for the P-I. He retired from daily journalism in 1971 after optioning Dune to a movie studio. Tom Robbins quit the P-I in 1970 and moved over to the Washington coast, where he eventually wrote Another Roadside Attraction, the first of seven novels. He now lives in La Conner.
Jack Douty, who was executive editor in the mid-1970s, was not known as a deep thinker, but he was fiercely loyal to his staff and a bit quirky. When a reporter wrote an op-ed piece that accused the Nixon administration of trying to use returning Vietnam POWs as propaganda tools, a pair of angry Legionnaires on the staff stormed into Douty's office and demanded that the reporter be fired for a lack of patriotism. Douty, though himself a World War II veteran and a very patriotic, one-time aide to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, refused.
Douty was full of surprises. Once, when columnist Rick Anderson sat at his typewriter banging out a piece, Douty came from the back of the room after getting a cup of coffee, stopped, and, to Anderson's utter amazement, placed the steaming cup on his head, saying, "Don't move."
"I was still in stunned silence when he came back a few minutes later," recalls Anderson, who later wrote for the Times and now writes for Seattle Weekly. "'What do you think,' he said, 'if we renamed the sports section the Green Line and ran a green line down the page?' He knew I had worked as a sportswriter for the San Francisco Chronicle's Sporting Greenwhere the whole section was printed on green paperand this would be the poor man's version. 'I like it,' I said. 'Then we'll do it,' he said. And he did, on that basis deciding to make a momentous change in the newspaper. And that was just the first 15 minutes of the day."
The P-I's lead sports columnist today is Art Thiel, a staff leader with a cache of institutional memory. He talks of the "great churn of staff and editors" who have enlivened the pages of the P-I over time: Doug Welch, the writer in the 1940s and 1950s who amused his readers with satirical accounts of Seattle Parks Board meetings; John Owen, the sports editor and fine writer who also wrote a food column; the rakish Jim Moore; J. Michael Kenyon; Blaine Johnson; and Watson "in his heyday." There was also Royal Brougham, who had his first byline in 1911, covered the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, died at his typewriter in the Kingdome press box in 1978, and is memorialized by a street between Safeco Field and Seahawks Stadium.
Prosecuting the Prosecutor
At times, the hand of William Randolph Hearst, the "Chief," lay heavily on his Seattle possession. The P-I's overheated coverage of the notorious 1947 Canwell Committee hearings that sought to purge alleged Communists from the University of Washington faculty was in keeping with Hearst's red-baiting editorial policy. The newspaper became an unabashed cheering squad for the legislative committee headed by the late state Sen. Albert Canwell, a Spokane Republican, whose hearings wrecked the careers of several UW professors. In contrast, the Seattle Times won its first Pulitzer Prize, in 1950, for the work of reporter Ed Guthman in clearing the name of a highly respected UW professor falsely accused during the hearings.
But the P-I has had its share of proud moments. Perhaps one of its most significant contributions to the changing of the city's political culture was when, in 1968, it published a series of stories that helped bring down a long-running police payoff system. A Republican prosecutor, Charles O. Carroll, dominated King County politics at the time.
It was a comparative lack of action by the Times on the payoff scandal that put photographer Dave Potts outside Carroll's Capitol Hill home one day in 1968. Potts felt a little silly following Ben Cichy, the "Pinball King." It seemed a bit melodramatic. But he persevered, grudgingly accepting the fact that "photographers were considered kind of second-class citizens in those days." Potts peeked from behind a big elm tree in front of Carroll's house and aimed the lens of his Nikon in Cichy's direction.
"We saw him go in; he was carrying a package," recalls Potts, long retired from the P-I and working as a home remodeler. "I got this kind of grainy picture of him coming out without the package."
THE PICTURE AND a story about the contacts between Seattle's notorious gambling kingpin and the county prosecutor ran in the P-I in August 1968. The newspaper was deluged with angry letters from outraged citizens protesting the "smearing" of Carroll. But the newspaper rode it out as Carroll was defeated for re-election in 1970, his grip on King County politics broken forever. He was indicted with 33 other city officials and police officers in a case that signaled the end of Seattle's so-called police tolerance policy. It was never proved that Carroll had actually taken money, but the revelations in the P-I helped end his career. Carroll and all but one or two of the indicted officials eventually were acquittedsome said because he had most of the judges in the courthouse in his pocket.
Carroll's ouster in the Republican primary in 1970 by a young prosecutor named Christopher T. Bayley helped usher in a new era of more open government and "Seattle-style" consensus. The state's open-meetings, public-records, and campaign-reporting laws followed closely behind.
Twice the Coverage
The P-I of today isn't as quirky as it once was. Staffers say that Publisher Roger Oglesby and Managing Editor David McCumber have brought a stability and even temperament to the newspaper that had been lacking. Since the strike against the Times and P-I in 2000-01, the P-I has racked up more awards for quality journalism than ever, surpassing the Times in some contests. Few people would want to see it go.
Seattle City Council member Nick Licata is generally not impressed with the differences between the two papers. "At times, both of them have seemed to be either insightful or provincial, but what I do appreciate is having two papers with two sets of reporters covering the same topics and issues, because then there is a greater chance that one set will report on things . . . that the other paper's reporters miss." Licata says he tends to grind his teeth when he reads a Joel Connelly column but reads every one of them, "if for no other reason than to shadowbox with his arguments." He is also a "big fan" of the paper's arts writer, Regina Hackett, "because she covers the social dynamics of Seattle's art scene like no other reporter."
The P-I is seen as being fairer in its labor coverage, says Karen Keiser, a Democratic state representative and communications director for the Washington State Labor Council. "In this last legislative session, the P-I editorialized that labor had given enough," she says. "The Times the last few years has been banging on unemployment insurance being too high. When I first joined the labor council in the mid-1980s, we went to the Times to get them to stop using the term 'labor boss.' We've had ongoing issues with the Times."
BOTH NEWSPAPERS have skewered, at times, King County Executive Ron Sims. Sometimes the P-I does the skewering, but perhaps more often it's the Times. "I made some deep cuts in the county parks budget and got hammered by the Times," Sims says. "The P-I agreed that we have to cut somewhere." The Times has also been hostile to Sound Transit, which Sims is committed to, while the P-I, he says, is "more open, but will insist on us being accountable."
"I love the competition," he says. "I love that the papers offer two different editorial points of viewa competition of ideas. I think we're better served by that. I've been in political office for 17 years. We're public-policy people. We like forums. We try every day to get a forum for a policy we're trying to shape. If one paper isn't interested, the other might be. It's a battle for the public's attention."
Right now, the big story is the fate of the newspapers themselves.
Former reporter and editor Dick Clever worked for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1970 to '75 and again from 1988 to '96. He worked for The Seattle Times from 1980 to '87 and covered the original joint operating agreement process in the early 1980s. He writes regularly about the papers' JOA for Seattle Weekly.