Conflicted Disinterest

The Seattle Times cuts loose the aggressive veteran freelancer who was covering the paper's dispute with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Two weeks ago, The Seattle Times let go freelancer Bill Richards. Richards is no ordinary freelancer. The former Wall Street Journal and Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter was hired in 2003 to write about news of the joint operating agreement (JOA) between the Times and the P-I. The arrangement gave Richards a very free hand and was intended to insulate the Times from the conflict of interest inherent in covering itself. The paper's publisher, Frank Blethen, is seeking to renegotiate or terminate the JOA, under which the Times handles advertising, production, and distribution of both papers. The P-I produces its own news content. The idea of the federally blessed monopoly was to ensure survival of two voices in the community, but the locally controlled Times says it's losing money under the arrangement and wants out. Hearst, the P-I's parent, is fighting the move in court.

Richards' hiring as an independent reporter covering the JOA dispute, which landed in court during his watch, was hailed in journalism circles for being a creative, and not inexpensive, solution to the problem every newspaper faces when it makes news itself. In letting his contract expire Dec. 31, the Times won't be able to claim that journalistic high ground in the fight with Hearst, and Richards' JOA coverage is almost certain to still be published—somewhere else, though perhaps not as regularly. (At the P-I, staff business reporters Dan Richman and Todd Bishop have been covering the story.)

So what happened? Richards says he got no explanation for the Times not renewing his deal. "Reading between the lines, I could sort of guess they were not happy with the aggressiveness of the coverage," he says. Indeed, well-respected and with a nose for financial data, Richards did what any dogged reporter would and wrote stories that went beyond basic JOA news, looking into Seattle Times Co. real-estate dealings and questioning accounting practices, especially as to whether the company presented a true picture of losses the Times says it has incurred in recent years.

"As time went on, it was clear they didn't want me to go in that direction," says Richards. While he encountered little resistance from Times editors, Richards says, he was "stonewalled" by Blethen, who only met with Richards once in three years.

"It's not true that we didn't want aggressive coverage," says Times Managing Editor David Boardman. "We valued that. Where we sometimes differed with Bill was on what information was truly relevant to this ongoing struggle [over the future of the JOA] and what wasn't. ... It was just a whole combination of issues, and we made the decision that, moving forward, we would try a different approach."

In ending the relationship with Richards, the Times likely hasn't prevented him from covering the story his way. There are plenty of news outlets around the country that would be thrilled to have his byline in their pages above stories about the demise of the 22-year-old JOA in Seattle. While Richards declined to say what his next move will be, it's hard to imagine he won't continue to pursue the story.

Times JOA coverage now falls to Eric Pryne, a veteran staffer who has the unenviable task of matching the distinguished work of Richards, which the paper once nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

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