“I was pretty surprised that they even called me in to meet with him," said Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Hector Castro, speaking of the meeting he had this morning with Ken Riddick, Hearst's vice president for digital media.
The meeting was in the paper's executive conference room, the same place where Riddick, on Feb. 18, held a series of quasi-interviews with 25 newspaper staffers who had expressed their interest in giving him ideas for an online-only P-I. The odd thing is that Castro didn't sign up for one of those Feb. 18 meetings. He's not even sure his vision of journalism fits with the direction the profession is headed.
“I’m used to taking a couple of hours to work on a lead for story," he said, speaking by phone from the newsroom. "Having to come up with something for Twitter in something like five seconds, that just doesn’t sound as fun.”
Still, he was offered a spot in the online-only lifeboat—and, in the end, turned Riddick down and went to sit among his reporter colleagues in the P-I offices on Elliott Avenue, soaking up what has become a very strange vibe now that the fact of today's online job offers has come out. “It’s really weird," he said. "I’ve had a few people say this is one of the weirdest days we’ve had. There are strange people walking in and out of our newsroom. Nobody knows why they’re here.”
In addition, nobody knows exactly who's been offered (or accepted) online jobs. However, a quick exercise in process-of-elimination seems to have narrowed down the possibilities. "It's awkward 'round here," wrote another reporter who, when asked, could not directly answer whether an online job was on the horizon.
Castro's meeting with Riddick lasted only ten minutes. It didn't involve any compliments regarding particular useful skills he possesses—compliments that might have provided further clues about what Hearst is up to with this online project. Michelle Nicolosi, the P-I assistant managing editor and web guru, was also in the meeting and did end up mentioning Castro's "versatility" and the fact that he could be trained. Other than that, though, there was little description of what the job would be—and a lot of description of what it wouldn't be.
“The overarching idea was they needed to make money, that the days of losing money couldn’t continue," Castro said. "And, with that in mind, that I couldn’t expect to make the salary that I was making.”
He also couldn't expect to be in a union, get paid for overtime, collect a potential nine-years-worth of severance pay when the P-I's print edition closes, transfer his accrued vacation into his new job, or have an employer-funded pension plan. He could expect to have a 401(k) match, however. And he could also expect to be working long days.
The offer on the table was called a "provisional offer of employment." A decision was required quickly.
“I just said no," Castro said. "I didn’t think I’d be a good fit for the team they’re trying to put together. And it’s not a personality thing. My interests in journalism just don’t align with what they’re trying to put together in an online product.”
He was drawn to journalism because he likes to write and think and take time with a story when a story requires time. “I think right now, what really people are looking for—what the manager of the company is looking for—are people who are interested in developing the online aspects of the field," he said. The implication: those aspects are not compatible with the aspects he enjoys.
Nobody told Castro not to talk about the offer. So he's talking. It's so uncomfortable in the P-I newsroom right now, with so many rumors swirling, that he thinks it's better to get as many facts out as possible. Anyway, that's what journalists do.
Here's one fact from the meeting with Riddick and Nicolosi that really stuck in his mind: Riddick seemed to be offering a firm end-date for the P-I as we know it, something that has proved elusive so far.
“The comment he made was that this venture would go forward in the event that we don’t have a buyer by March 10," Castro said. Meaning Hearst will formally give up on selling the P-I on March 10 and begin work on its new online-only enterprise that day. Hard to imagine a new online-only P-I launching while the old-school P-I still rolls off the presses, so one could assume that the print P-I's last day will be March 10—or, depending, March 11.
One doesn't know this for sure. But one could assume. Is Castro certain Riddick didn't say March 18, the other date that's been much-discussed lately? He is certain.
“He said March 10.”
Illustration by Andrew Saeger