"P lease join me in the newsroom for a few minutes for an announcement." So read the subject line of an e-mail Seattle Post-Intelligencer staffers received on Friday, January 9, at 12:01 p.m., from the paper's publisher, Roger Oglesby.
Everyone at the P-I already knew something was up. KING 5 television had reported the previous evening that the newspaper, which has published in Seattle since 1863, would be put up for sale by its owner, the Hearst Corporation. Afterward, there had been hopeful talk inside the P-I newsroom that this might be a step toward purchasing the Seattle Times, the paper's longtime rival. But that was just the speculation of a group of people who still believed what they had been telling themselves for years: that Hearst, with its deeper pockets, would prevail over the Blethen family, the majority owners of the Seattle Times, in this city's seemingly endless newspaper war.
Over at the Times, people more quickly sensed what was about to happen. "We got a tip something was coming on at about five to 5:00" the day before Oglesby's e-mail, one reporter said. "As the news started, people were starting to gather around the TVs in the core of the newsroom. Everyone was shocked, and some people started crying. It was pretty emotional. I saw one reporter head out in tears to go report the story."
Tears because, though the papers have had an intense rivalry, many journalists in town have worked at both the Times and P-I, or are friends with someone at the other paper. Tears, too, because at moments like the one last week, journalists tend to realize that their shared experience of working in a declining industry and at the pleasure of unpredictable publishers and corporations is a powerful commonality—more powerful than, say, the fact that they write under different mastheads in newsrooms with slightly different cultures.
At the Times, David Boardman, the paper's executive editor, was seen running toward Times publisher Frank Blethen's office as soon as the Thursday report finished airing. In the newsroom, everyone wanted a piece of the story. By the time Boardman came back a short while later, reporters had been assigned and he'd clammed up; he didn't want to be quoted.
Stories were written, put to bed, printed, published online.
Then, on January 9, the e-mail message from Oglesby. It was a bodyless e-mail, the only text being that foreboding subject line. By now everyone knew it wasn't going to be good news for the P-I. The KING 5 story, though it was anonymously sourced, still remained unchallenged some 20 hours later.
Mike Lewis, who writes the Under the Needle column for the P-I, was out reporting when he received Oglesby's e-mail. "Well, that meant obviously something was going to happen," he said. By the time he reached the P-I newsroom, Steven Swartz, president of Hearst Newspapers, was already there and addressing the staff while P-I managing editor David McCumber stood behind him, a heartbreaking collection of fidgets and downcast expressions. Swartz, Lewis said, "Kind of did the journalistic equivalent of the breakup speech: 'It's not you; it's me.'"
It wasn't about the quality of their journalism, which was great. It was about the business, which was losing money—$14 million from the P-I in 2008 alone.
"And then he slowly talked the air out of the room," Lewis said. People cried quietly or stood there with thousand-yard stares. Some tried to ask questions. Swartz wouldn't answer them. "It wasn't a dialogue, obviously, it was a monologue," Lewis said.
The paper would be put on sale for 60 days. Then, if there were no buyers, it would cease printing.
Reporters asked: Does this mean the P-I will become an online publication? What does it mean that our union contract is currently expired? Are we still entitled to the severance guaranteed under the old contract?
"He just gave his half- sheepish, uncomfortable smile and didn't respond," Lewis said.
Negotiators for the P-I employees' union, the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild, would have to take those matters up on January 13. They had been scheduled to meet that day with Hearst to negotiate a new contract. Now, they would be talking about severance pay and the mechanics of the likely closure.
Reporters also wondered: Why were we scooped on the story of our own likely demise?
"It seems clear that Hearst and/or the P-I publisher who works for Hearst intentionally leaked the news to KING," another P-I staffer said in an e-mail. "KING reported the news Thursday at 5:00 p.m. KING's report was very accurate. And some of the language sounded similar to Hearst's own announcement language... fuckers." Another P-I reporter said that publisher Oglesby was seen "dashing to his Lexus SUV and hightailing it out of there" as the KING 5 report broke.
But others were doubtful the leak came from Hearst. "I have no indication that anybody at Hearst leaked anything," managing editor McCumber said. "I know others feel this is important, but I don't care who leaked it... The night of hell that leak put us through is a small thing compared to the prospect of the loss of a great newspaper and the dismantling of a staff that's at the top rank in the business."
People left the building. People took walks. People came back inside bearing Scotch and whiskey and a case of Rainier. People opened the bottles and cans, talked, mourned.
"It's turned into a wake," Lewis said. "A 60-day wake. The career is drying up. It's not just this paper."
Over at the Times, the mood was similarly dour, though there were a few expressions of pleasure. Among the ambivalent: a newsman with a long memory who wrote in an e-mail, "Remember when the P-I was so sure that they had won the newspaper war that they came and pissed on the Times' lawn? I'm tempted to take a leak myself tonight, but will restrain myself."
Boardman, the Times' executive editor, took a different approach, sending an e-mail to P-I staffers that hinted at the fact that his paper's financial troubles would continue no matter what. (Under the papers' joint operating agreement, the two publications share losses; now, the Times will have to shoulder all the losses itself.) Boardman's e-mail read, in part: "Whatever future there is for a daily newspaper in Seattle will be built upon the legacy of courageous, competitive journalism we've built together with you over the decades."
Time to drink.
P-I staffers gathered after work on January 9 at Buckley's in Lower Queen Anne, just a couple blocks away from their offices overlooking Elliott Bay. They sat around, hugged, talked about what to do next. Present were several P-I couples whose incomes are entirely dependent on Hearst: Dan DeLong and Vanessa Ho, Angela Galloway and Lewis Kamb, Claudia Rowe and Dan Kearney. One P-I couple with a 5-month-old kid talked about spending the weekend cleaning up their house and getting ready to put it on the market. Regina Hackett, the P-I's art critic since 1981, later said: "For me personally, it might be a good thing, because I'm like some demented duckling stuck on this island—stuck on the P-I—so if I am forced to do something brave and move on out there, it might be good for me." She plans to blog and work on a book.
Lewis, who knew for a long time that he wasn't in a thriving industry, and that the P-I, like every other newspaper, was struggling with declining revenues and circulation, used a different metaphor.
"It's been like being on this endless flight, on this plane where the engine's on fire, and it won't crash," he said. But he never really wanted off.
Additional reporting by Jen Graves.