It seems like every week a city in America loses its newspaper. We decided to focus on one, Seattle, to find out what happens afterwards. In March, the 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer shuttered its print edition. We talk to alt-weekly staffers, neighborhood bloggers, online-only reporters, and the editor of the P-I's old rival to find out the shape of Seattle's new media landscape.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Shh! On Thursday, former Chicago Tribune Editor James Warren wrote on Atlantic.com about a secret gathering of the grand poobahs from the nation’s biggest newspapers and newspaper chains in a drab Chicago suburb. They were there to ponder, quote, “models to monetize content,” that is to say, how they could act collectively and legally – not so easy – to get Google or bloggers or anyone, really, to shell out for their content. The discussion must have had a sharp and sweaty existential edge, because now existence is the name of the newspaper game. And this week, instead of just reeling off some updates on dead or dying broadsheets, we thought we'd focus on a city. We could have just thrown a dart at the map, but we chose Seattle.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Here it is, the final print edition, ever, of The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: After 146 years, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper is folding.
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Tomorrow will be the last print edition -
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: The end of an era, a symbol of change, as a growing number of readers get their news online.
BOB GARFIELD: Eli Sanders is a senior writer for Seattle’s biggest alt weekly, The Stranger, a paper that has a robust online presence. Many of the Seattle readers we talked to said that The Stranger’s online blog, The Slog, is now their source for some of the City Hall reporting they used to get from the print version of The Post-Intelligencer, which folded in March. Sanders doesn't seem to glory in The Stranger’s incursion on The P-I’s turf, because now The P-I exists only in a stripped-down, Web-only form and it’s struggling to make a difference.
ELI SANDERS: And they're trying to make a go of a viable online-only newspaper with a staff of 20, and about 14 of those people being what they're calling news gatherers - not reporters anymore, or editors, but news gatherers. They have had some scoops in the last month and a half. They broke a story about the Seattle Sounders and one of the players who had allegations of sexual assault against him. Those allegations were later shuffled aside. The prosecutors involved didn't follow up at all, and so the story ended up going nowhere. But the Sounders are a new team in Seattle and there’s a lot of interest in them, so there was a lot of interest in The P-I’s story.
BOB GARFIELD: In general, how are the news gatherers doing at gathering the news that the reporters used to report?
ELI SANDERS: You can see them struggling to keep their heads above water, I think. If you go to the site today, you'll see a lot of links to other news outlets in the region for basic stories, links to The Seattle Times, which is The P-I’s former archrival, which it would never have, in the past, wanted to credit on basics news of the city, links to the Tacoma News Tribune, which is a paper in the city south of Seattle. So, they are trying valiantly, with a staff of 14 news gatherers, to cover the city in the way that their staff of 150-plus used to, but it’s an impossible task.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I know your own weekly, The Stranger, has filled some of that vacuum. How else has it been filled?
ELI SANDERS: It’s been filled by community blogs, in some measure. West Seattle has West Seattle Blog. Ballard, which is a trendy neighborhood, has My Ballard. Capitol Hill has a number of blogs, including CapitalHillSeattle.com. Notable neighborhood blogs tend to be the wealthier ones. But in the poorer neighborhoods you don't have blogs that are as well known. They exist, and they certainly cover the poorer neighborhoods, but they are not as robust as the others.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you one last thing. The Seattle Times, now that it is the only printed daily in town, has it stepped up to the plate? Has its coverage improved?
ELI SANDERS: One interesting thing about The Seattle Times’ posture since the closure of The P-I is how gentle they've been with The P-I readers. They've really bent over backwards not to dance on the grave of what was a 146-year-old Seattle institution, and, to compete with The P-I’s new online posture as an aggregator, they've started aggregating. So The Times in a way presents a more humble face than it used to. To answer the question of whether they have upped their game, essentially, I think it’s been difficult for them. They are going through layoffs and they have a much reduced staff over their staff levels two years ago, which is also difficult and demoralizing. But they are doing a better job than the online-only P.I. at covering the city and the region for now, simply because they have more resources, although that hasn't stopped them from being forced, in moments over the last month and a half to link to The P-I when it’s broken stories, which gives The P-I a feather in its online cap.
BOB GARFIELD: Eli, thank you very much.
ELI SANDERS: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Eli Sanders is a senior staff writer at Seattle’s alt weekly, The Stranger.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Maybe the most prominent of the neighborhood blogs Sanders mentioned is the West Seattle Blog, run by Tracy Record and her husband Patrick Sand. Actually, they bristle at the term “blog.” They prefer to call it a, quote, “commercial news site operating in a blog format.” And it’s true. Their blog – oops, sorry – does a staggering amount of original nuts-and-bolts reporting on issues like real estate development, local schools and crime. It was started in 2005 by the couple, but it was launched by an act of God.
TRACY RECORD: It was one year after we started the site, in December of 2006, the whole area here was hit by a tremendous windstorm. And our neighborhood in particular suffered from outages, and it was very difficult, particularly in the citywide media, to find any West Seattle-specific information. Some of the small readership we'd built up at the time started asking, do you guys know anything about what’s going on, can you find out any information? And so taking the skills that I had from more than a quarter century in journalism, we just kind of turned ourselves into a mobile news team and headed out.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the readership really took off?
TRACY RECORD: Once the windstorm kicked things off, we started noticing more and more that just wasn't getting covered or written about, and people would say, what do you know about this, what do you know about that, particularly development projects and other things like that. So the more that we covered, the more people showed up to read about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: During the Senate Future of Journalism hearings, David Simon, the creator of The Wire, argued that non-traditional journalism can't fill the vacuum left by the collapsing papers. And he said:
DAVID SIMON: The day I run into a Huffington Post reporter at a Baltimore Zoning Board hearing is the day that I will be confident that we've actually reached some sort of equilibrium.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well, obviously what you do is different from The Huffington Post, but could you respond to that?
TRACY RECORD: Absolutely. The growing neighborhood news movement, whether the people at the helm of sites are people like me with traditional journalism experience or people who are kind of learning on the job, are covering design review board meetings, school board meetings, community council meetings; they're writing about them, they're kicking off the discussion about them, they're creating places for communities to discuss them, and in many cases, some of the events and meetings that we cover every week are places where there are no other journalists. So it does kind of chap my hide [BROOKE LAUGHS] sometimes to have it said that, well, if the newspapers go away, who's going to cover these meetings, because they weren't covering them before.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, it’s been a long complaint of traditional journalism that poor neighborhoods, working class people are undercovered. Do you worry that not having as big a revenue base to draw advertising money from those neighborhoods and fewer people with home Internet access to log onto your site, fewer middle class folks with liberal arts degrees and free time to blog, will they be even less well covered if guys like you end up filling the gap of local news?
TRACY RECORD: The one thing that people have to decide that they want to do when they set out to do this – and it’s something that we did decide to do – is to cover all of the neighborhoods and all of the areas within your scope. For example, our peninsula has a little bit of a divide, almost a racial and a class divide, kind of literally east/west, and we set out to say, we're covering the entire peninsula; we're covering it as all of West Seattle. I'm not saying that we're doing a fabulous job of it. We have a lot of ways to go and a lot of people to reach out to. But there is - at least in Seattle there are some factors that make the digital divide a little bit less glaring. The public libraries all offer Internet access, for example, and schools do. Often we hear that children access information at schools and go home and tell their parents about, it if they don't have Internet access at home, and that’s at least a start.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what do you think? Do you think that neighborhood news sites like yours could ultimately supplant the metro dailies, if they go down, or can they just really supplement them?
TRACY RECORD: I think that it’s a totally different world than what existed before, and what’s happening is that sites like ours are giving people information that they previously didn't have access to. But I think that what there remains a need for, and – and some of this is being experimented on around here, is people with more of a citywide focus who perhaps contract out help, some of the investigative and other types of reporters who've lost their jobs at organizations like the paper P.I., saying, well, we'll go out and we'll be your guns for hire. We'll do investigative work or we'll do investigative work of a broader scope and perhaps you, the neighborhood sites, can link to us. We're really creating a new news ecosystem rather than talking about a one-for-one replacement.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tracy, thank you very much.
TRACY RECORD: Thanks for talking with me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Tracy Record is the editor and co-publisher of the West Seattle Blog. Of course, The Seattle P.I.s new website, owned by Hearst, is also vying for a place in that ecosystem. Many of the staffers that the online P.I. retained are actually columnists. But it held onto a few reporters, among them, Scott Gutierrez. He says it’s harder to report now, but they still do it.
SCOTT GUTIERREZ: I don't think there’s necessarily any story that we can't do, but you’re not going to get three days or a week or a month to sit down with a CD of emails or expense reports or a box full of records and be allowed to sift through and find your story. I think that kind of enterprise work has to be done incrementally here now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Just before the paper version closed, you did a story about the police beating a 15-year-old girl.
SCOTT GUTIERREZ: Correct.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You got the documents. You logged the time to report it. You had the clout to get a response from the police department. Do you think that there’s any way that the online P.I. could have pulled that off?
SCOTT GUTIERREZ: Yeah, in fact, I could point to another story I did just about three weeks after the print edition closed down. You know, the Seattle police officer, who had committed several instances of misconduct over his career, he'd been accused of slamming a teenage suspect’s head into the back of the car during an arrest, and he was fired by the police chief, but then the department was ordered by a civil service commission to take him back. That’s a story that we did that no one else reported on, for whatever reason. And we also explained the issues of how this cop with a history of serious discipline and just overall incompetence was still allowed to keep his job and also get a pretty hefty financial package from the city for all the time that he was forced to take off from his job. It’s a matter of knowing the right people at the right time and having people that are still willing to call you with a good tip.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How big is your staff now, compared to what it was?
SCOTT GUTIERREZ: [LAUGHS] We were about, what, 150, 160 editorial staff, and now about 20 of us who are reporters and producers. And I think we have one photographer now.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Fundamentally, what you have is a shoestring operation.
SCOTT GUTIERREZ: Yeah. I mean, we are. We are a much leaner operation, and - and we're learning to adjust. And there’s no doubt that there are some longer-term stories that we can't do as easily as we could have before. But I think in terms of just keeping people informed, in terms of reporting on what’s happening, I still think that we're performing that service. And I feel that way just based on the feedback I get from emails from readers, from what I hear from sources who say, even if you’re a shell of your former self, we're still happy to have you around.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Scott, thanks very much.
SCOTT GUTIERREZ: Sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Scott Gutierrez is a reporter for SeattlePI.com. With The P-I online, Seattle’s sole daily is The Seattle Times. Once, the two papers were bound by a joint operating agreement, forced marriages in which rival papers share some costs – printing, delivery, and advertising – but still compete with separate newsrooms. When the joint operating agreement between The Times and The P-I was signed in 1983, it seemed to make sense, but eventually The P-I began to shed subscribers. And by the time the paper died, its circulation was about half of what it was when the two papers first got hitched. David Boardman, the executive editor of The Seattle Times, says his city will always have at least one paper.
DAVID BOARDMAN: We're just confident that our newspaper, and most newspapers, will survive. Particularly since the closure of The P-I we've seen tremendous public support and understanding of the value of what newspaper journalism is about. Now, ultimately I'm not hung up on whether that gets delivered on a flexible plastic screen or ink on paper, over time, but the essence of what we do, newspaper journalism, I'm absolutely confident there is a successful business model for that going forward, and there’s certainly demand for it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We were trying to understand what was happening to newspapers and so we looked at Seattle, but we could have gone to Denver, where The Rocky Mountain News folded. We could have gone to Tucson, where The Citizen folded. Are we then not living through the slow death of print newspapers? Are we just watching the end of two-newspaper towns?
DAVID BOARDMAN: Absolutely, we're watching the end of two-newspaper towns, with a few possible exceptions in the very largest cities. But medium-sized cities like this one, there’s just no way they can continue to support two newspapers. Will they continue to support one newspaper with a variety of other news and information sources springing up around that? Absolutely. And I think that’s what we're seeing here is, I think, even the people who are running blogs and alternative newspapers and television, they recognize, as we do, that as the largest news-gathering force, we're the center and will remain the center of the news and information ecosystem. But lots of new organisms will spring up, and I think that’s a healthy thing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So what you’re saying - the citizens of Seattle, and any other big American city, ought to just stop worrying and learn to love the Internet.
DAVID BOARDMAN: [LAUGHS] Well, what they first ought to do is, until we – until we do find some answers to the business model questions, they ought to continue to subscribe to their newspaper [BROOKE LAUGHS] because we need the subscriptions in order to continue to transition to other models. If they simply only get their newspaper news from the Internet, at this point they're not making enough of a contribution. And if they want to think about it almost in an NPR [LAUGHS] model way, if they really want to support the news-gathering machine that newspapers represent, they have to contribute.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David, thanks a lot.
DAVID BOARDMAN: My pleasure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: David Boardman is the executive editor of The Seattle Times.