There's a lot of buzz in Seattle about what to do about the apparently imminent demise of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the precarious financial state of the Seattle Times Co.
With the P-I likely to cease print publication and possibly disappear even from cyberspace in mid-March, and with The Seattle Times thought to be poised for another layoff and perhaps even bankruptcy, there's growing fear we could indeed become the first big zero-newspaper town. (Allow me to reiterate my previous prediction that we will.)
In the public arena, a growing number of largely under-informed but concerned citizens is calling for some sort of community involvement, at the least to define the problem (a growing shortage of meat-and-potatoes news coverage) and perhaps even to find a solution (an angel to buy the P-I, or maybe loosely coordinated news coverage by emerging Web journalists).
And from the private corporate worlds of the the two dailies emanates deafening silence. That of course doesn't mean trees aren't falling.
A group called No News is Bad News (NNBN) is organizing a public panel discussion, probably to be held next month, to consider the demise of mainstream news coverage. And City Council member Nick Licata on Wednesday, Jan. 28, will make the news crisis the theme of a regular meeting of the Culture, Civil Rights, Health, and Personnel Committee (2 p.m. at City Hall and live on the Seattle Channel on cable and the Web).
The NNBN group is still formulating its event, but Licata has already lined up some interesting guests:
Presenters on the panel will be Roger Simpson and Douglas Underwood, Professors of Communication from the University of Washington; attorney Anne Bremner from the law firm Stafford Frey Cooper and Co-Chair of the Committee for a Two Newspaper Town; Beth Hester, programming manager for Seattle Channel; Liz Brown of the PacNW Newspaper Guild; David Brewster, Publisher of Crosscut; and Jennifer Towery, President of the Peoria Newspaper’s Guild.
I am skeptical of any government effort to save journalism, especially if it involves direct intervention. It seems to me that if a government wants to help journalism, it could simply do a better job of abiding public-disclosure laws. But whatever, I'm glad people recognize there is a problem.
(Update: CityClub is also getting into the act, with a panel discussion Feb. 20.)
Meanwhile, something is happening behind the scenes at the two dailies. But we citizens are all just too unimportant to know what it is.
First, will Hearst continue to operate the P-I as an online-only news outlet or not? Having refused to answer questions at the announcement that the paper was for sale, the suits shortly thereafter asked staffers to, essentially, "give us all your ideas for continuing to publish online." Apparently, people down on Elliott Avenue are hard at work on all this, but as Managing Editor David McCumber wrote in a recent blog post, it doesn't look all that likely that the P-I will have an afterlife on the Web:
Hope for a continued P-I continues to flicker. Several conversations are continuing. But everybody around here knows the morning line odds on that are 90 to 1, and post time is approaching way too fast.
I think he just said the odds are 90-to-1 against Hearst continuing to operating the P-I as an online-only newspaper. Did I read that right? I think I did. What do you know? I buried the lede.
I'll go further than McCumber to say, albeit with the benefit of no inside information, that I'd be surprised if the characteristically disaffected corporate parent had any particular plan whatsoever to stay in Seattle with an online product. I expect to see Hearst roll out some sort of Web 3.0 newspaper in Houston and San Francisco, and not soon, long before doing so Seattle. But I hope I am wrong.
Meanwhile, the family-controlled Seattle Times Co. is being no less opaque about what's happening there. Still no closure on the sale of three dailies in Maine or property in the relatively hot South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle, either of which could somewhat cushion the burden of $90 million of debt. Non-profit status is reportedly being explored. I'm not sure converting an encumbered institution is smarter than starting from scratch with a non-profit news org, but then, it would appear that both papers are already non-profit enterprises.
Last week I got sidetracked by job-search obligations and the inauguration. I will resume Life in a Zero Newspaper Town this week with some thoughts on how technology is a barrier to the survival of mainstream journalism and, at the same time, its potential savior.