The buzz on Monday afternoon in the newsroom of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was not the usual cacophony of clacking keys, phone interviews and news meetings. Instead, it was the sound of reporters putting to bed their final stories, sifting through receipts to prepare their final expense reports, feeding years of reporting notes into an industrial-size shredding bin and tidying away the mementos of their P-I careers in cardboard boxes. Some were on the phone, of course, but this time, they were the story that others were writing. "Hey," said business reporter Dan Richman to a colleague on the phone. "We're closing." (Read about the 10 most endangered newspapers in America.)
The final print edition of the 146-year-old newspaper landed on porches and stoops throughout Seattle on Tuesday morning, bearing the banner headline "P-I Presses Fall Silent." A special section, which included 20 pages of history, timelines, reflections and a photo of the paper's final stewards, was titled, "You've Meant the World to Us."
But the world has changed for print media. On Jan. 9, the Hearst Corp. announced that the financially strapped paper was for sale. If no buyer could be found within 60 days, the paper would be forced to close its doors or produce a Web-only version with a fraction of its staff. The P-I's demise is a sign of the times, coming in the wake of the Feb. 27 closure of Denver's Rocky Mountain News weeks short of its 150th anniversary, while the San Francisco Chronicle, another Hearst paper, has been put on notice that its days may be numbered. (See the top 10 financial collapses of 2008.)
In the preceding weeks, Seattle journalists had struggled to make sense of the changes buffeting their profession. Two forums were held, one at the University of Washington titled "Journalism on the Brink" and another at city hall called "A No-Newspaper Town?" Attendees were encouraged to Twitter throughout the meetings, where the conversation was sprinkled with emerging-media jargon about micropayments, super-local news, journalism-as-conversation and the demise of the media as gatekeeper. But only about 40 of the 170 people currently employed by the city's oldest paper will be joining the brave new world at its Web-only iteration, Seattlepi.com, beginning on March 18.
One of those is Monica Guzman, 26, who is fluent in Twitter, Facebook and iPhone and runs the Big Blog on the P-I. She and her colleagues will continue to be based at the same building overlooking Puget Sound, with its iconic globe still spinning on the roof. But as for the shape of the product they'll create, that's constantly morphing. "Part of what I do is the future," Guzman says, referring to her online presence, her immersion in the Seattle buzz and her ability to improve her reporting through public input. But she also acknowledges that what she does is only part of a successful model and that the historical role of newspapers as watchdogs and the importance of traditional investigative reporting cannot be undersold.
Eric Nalder, a journalist with the P-I who has earned two Pulitzer Prizes for investigative reporting over the past 39 years, agrees that "high-impact journalism" must be, and will be, preserved. "I'm not saying that bloggers don't bring valuable information," he says, "but we can't depend on them alone. We need to be breaking new ground all the time as journalists." (See the worst business deals of 2008.)
Some of his colleagues are trying to do that in their postP-I careers. Environment reporter Robert McClure is developing an outlet devoted to news across the American West and eventually, he hopes, western Canada. "It is a venture aimed at doing investigative, environmental and narrative journalism for all kinds of platforms," he says. He has purchased the domain name TrueWest.info and already has 10 people onboard. His wife, Seattle-based freelance journalist Sally Deneen, has been working with several P-I reporters to develop the Seattle Post Globe, a site, she says, that will be devoted to keeping alive what she calls the scrappy, underdog spirit of the paper, either as a cooperative or a nonprofit. Says Deneen: "It just seems, to some of us, at least, that ad-based journalism is sending journalism down the wrong road." Also trying to move into the space created by the demise of the P-I is SeattleCourant.com, launched by University of Washington journalism student Keith Vance. "My guiding principle is to do traditional print journalism that is simply published on a computer," he says. Vance believes mom-and-pop Web operations are the future of journalism. (Read "This Journalist Is Brought to You by ...")
If Seattle's already successful community-news blogs are anything to go by, Vance may be right. West Seattle Blog and My Ballard are well trafficked and provide extensive coverage of local politics and business, with newsgathering that's often guided by questions posted by users. The city is also well covered by two public radio stations, KUOW and KPLU, as well as the alternative weeklies The Stranger and Seattle Weekly and local TV news and talk radio.
And, of course, P-I subscribers will automatically begin receiving its longtime rival paper, the Seattle Times on Wednesday. But even that consolation may not last long. "It's not a certainty that the P-I's departure will allow the Times to continue, much less flourish," says Richman, the business reporter. For example, as many as 20,000 of the P-I's 117,000 subscribers already received both papers. Local economists say the Times' own position is dire, pointing to its two-year pension freeze and the laying off of roughly a quarter of its staff in the past year.
Still, staffers at the Times made sure the city honored their P-I colleagues. Times reporter Hal Bernton stood outside the P-I building at day's end on Monday, holding a bullhorn and propping up several handwritten signs thanking P-I reporters for 146 years of service and declaring, "Journalism Is a Passion that Never Dies." Half an hour later, reporters and local press did gather to share solace. "It's a simple sentiment," Bernton said beforehand. "Let's not end this with us huddled in one corner and them in another." If the Times succumbs to the same fate as the P-I, however, there may not be many corners left to huddle in.