The hours around ten in the morning are not generally a good time to call a surprise meeting of journalists. So on March 16, when Seattle Post-Intelligencer managing editor David McCumber sent his staff a short 9:56 a.m. e-mail signaling the end of the 145-year-old newspaper's print edition, the crowd that assembled was smaller and older than it could have been. The P-I had a staff of close to 170, but on this, the paper's last workday, only the early risers would get the news firsthand.
"Tonight we'll be putting the paper to bed for the last time," P-I publisher Roger Oglesby told the group. To cheer them somewhat, he mentioned that the "bloodline" would go on, via an experimental online-only P-I. But that was cold comfort to most. The new, virtual incarnation of the newspaper will have only about 20 employees, none of them represented by the paper's former union. Many who accepted offers have reported that they had to take salary and benefits cuts in order to be let onto the web lifeboat.
Inside the P-I newsroom on the afternoon of the announcement, newspaper staffers could be seen sipping beers and jokingly discussing the best locations for Dumpster diving. Likely because the paper's owner, the Hearst Corporation, had been strongly suggesting since early January that the end was coming, no one seemed exceedingly shocked or stressed. There was sadness, certainly, but also a strong feeling of release. The last deadline, ever, was about to pass.
The P-I newsroom is located on Elliott Avenue, so close to Puget Sound that, looking west from the center of the room, an observer can't see any land—just water, islands, and ferries going by. The effect is of being on a ship, and on March 16, of course, the effect was also of being on a sinking ship. Some desks had been abandoned long ago, part of the newspaper's years of downsizing. In one of the areas that remained populated, page designers ("Of which none will be kept," a newsroom guide said) sat surrounded by green Christmas lights. Beneath a central table sat about a dozen boxes of Pagliacci Pizza, delivered courtesy of the Houston Chronicle (and quickly devoured). A whirring laser printer. A wall of "Employee of the Month" plaques. A pile of Society of Professional Journalists awards. All around, the clatter of cleanup.
Outside, a small thank-you rally was assembling in a plaza off of Elliott Avenue. "Will you be going to the rally?" someone asked a scowling copy editor who was chewing on a toothpick as he worked on a story. "Yeah, I'll be rallying my ass off," the copy editor shot back. A staffer walked by wearing a P-I baseball hat. Others sat in commemorative P-I T-shirts.
The rally had been organized by Hal Bernton, a reporter at the Seattle Times. "The whole idea that this could be the last day is very hard to process," Bernton said, speaking into a tiny, faltering megaphone. He was followed by McCumber, who thanked the P-I staffers for the honor of working with them, and by Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist David Horsey, who tried to capture the moment. "We're in a new world—all of us," he said. "Who knows where we'll go... I hope every one of us finds a way to keep doing what we do, because it's so important." Bruce Ramsey of the Times editorial page spoke as well. "None of us at the Times are happy about this," he said.
The Times itself is in an odd situation at the moment: Nominal victor in the city's endless newspaper war, but still struggling financially and seen as the bad guy (despite its local ownership and deep roots in the area) by many Seattleites who felt that the corporate-owned P-I was more in sync with the city's politics and culture. To these people, it's as if the P-I was the city's kooky, radical granny who died too soon, while the Times is Seattle's rigid, angry, conservative granddad who many quietly—and some not so quietly—wish had died instead.
Still—politics, branding, past rivalry, and present perception aside—the reporters from the Times wanted to say thanks. "Reporting is what matters," Times columnist Danny Westneat said into the megaphone. "The reason this is such a sad day is that we no longer have 150 reporters anymore who are working and telling the stories in this city." About a dozen of his colleagues had come down to share in the farewell salute. "I hope you make it," Westneat said to those P-I employees joining the online-only venture. "I hope somebody figures out how to make money off that whizbang thing they call the internet."
The retooled seattlepi.com will be led by Michelle Nicolosi, who as an assistant managing editor shepherded the P-I's website through a period of huge growth, helping it achieve half a billion hits last year. In two posts on the new website, which launched the day of Oglesby's announcement, Nicolosi said that seattlepi.com will continue to cover the news of the city while bringing in guest bloggers (including, on the site's first full day, Congressman Jim McDermott and former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper) and offering content from other Hearst properties such as Country Living and House Beautiful. "Our strategy going forward is to experiment a lot and fail fast," she wrote. "We will resist the urge to be sentimental about the things we've always done."
Andrea James, a 27- year-old P-I staffer who took one of the online-only jobs, said she did so "in hopes of creating something that will grow big enough to hire more journalists back. That won't happen right away, but we've got to try."
Others were skeptical about the prospects for success online. "What I truly fear will be lost with the P-I is the kind of dogged scrutiny and spotlight reporting of local issues that takes guts, sourcing, time, space, patience, experience, even the backing of media lawyers," said Lewis Kamb, a now-former P-I reporter who doesn't know what he's doing next. "In the P-I's absence... will anyone fill that void? And if no one does, where does that leave this city?"
That question will continue to be asked, certainly, even as the online-only crew decouples itself from past practices and present sentiment, and those who have just lost journalism jobs—and many who still have them—meditate on what's been left behind. "The P-I offered a reasonably sensible collection of stories written without the we-precious-few tone of the [Seattle] Times, which rubs itself against the legs of the comfortably middle-class like a cat looking for a handout," said Regina Hackett, the longtime P-I art critic who will now take up blogging for ArtsJournal.com. "I'll most miss being around people who always ask, 'How do you know that?'"