Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Goodbye, Seattle P-I

Overlooking Elliott Bay in Seattle, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has been a fixture of Seattle since 1863. I worked at the P-I in the early 1990s. No, not as a reporter, but just before I began my freelance career. I worked on the P-I business staff as the benefits specialist, serving under Dianne Marr, the human resources director. Just the two of us representing the entire human resources department.

For nearly two years, I assisted the publisher and business staff, but my main duties involved assisting our reporters, photographers, and copy desk staff with all their questions and employee needs. I hung out at the copy desk downstairs with Katie and picked up on the newsroom chatter. I marveled at the stacks of new books wrapped in press releases quietly awaiting book reviews. I joked with our technical crew when databases needed backup or printers went on the fritz. These were people I came to care about and who I think of when I think of what makes up a newspaper, from all departments.

Today, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer distributed the last newspaper print issue. The last one.

Publisher Roger Ogelsby (who came on board after I left) says the P-I will be an "online only" newspaper, starting tomorrow. It's an interesting experiment, but I know one thing--it's just not the same. The New York Times says it "will resemble a local Huffington Post more than a traditional newspaper, with a news staff of about 20 people rather than the 165 it had, and a site with mostly commentary, advice and links to other news sites, along with some original reporting."

Of course, that's the nature of change, but this means 160 employees have lost their jobs and the people of Seattle and Washington state have lost one of its two biggest major newspapers. I don't know if the Seattle Times, privately owned, will be far behind.

All I know is this: the Fourth Estate is suffering.

But on this day, I wish to share my memories of the Seattle P-I:

Weekly editorial meetings on the first floor. Art Thiel's laugh and his sports columns, Steve Swearingen's mustache, Katherine White's kindness, Dianne Marr's quiet humor. Sitting with an employee who needed advice on his benefits after learning he was HIV positive. Getting to know one of the Hearst heirs, a young man sent to work at the P-I to "learn the ropes" of one of the family businesses--and I witnessed what happens to a person when there's no need to work for a living. Filing a dozen "thank you" letters for one of our reporters in his personnel file which thanked the P-I for sending a journalist who listened carefully and sorted through facts and fallacies to find the truth. (Some of our editors wanted to fire him because they would send him to an interview to get a quote for a story that was already "decided," but this reporter, a true journalist at heart, wrote the story based on the facts he turned up, not the ones decided before the facts were known. The public showed their appreciation in writing, and these thank you letters that kept coming in helped him keep his job--showing me the power of positive feedback and the power of a simple thank you.)

"Ronnie," my ventriloquial sidekick, also made an appearance at the P-I. I brought him in his suitcase to the building one day because after work, I had a gig--"Ronnie" and I were scheduled to tape a public service announcement at KOMO-TV in Seattle for a county-wide event coming up. One of the business staff found out "Ronnie" was in my office. Eagerly, she asked if "Ronnie" could speak to a group of elementary school students coming to visit the paper that same afternoon. I hesitated, not having anything prepared, but then agreed. Why not? I sat down and whipped off a few one-liners for "Ronnie" and made my way, suitcase in hand, to the large conference room overlooking the water. The kids' eyes opened wide as "Ronnie" joked about the newspaper biz and sang a silly song. "Ronnie" was a hit! He surprised even me.

I remember the year of the reporters' strike and the tense guild negotiations. I also remember discussions and disagreements over the JOA, the Joint Operating Agreement with the Seattle Times. Way back, the Times and the P-I signed this agreement in which the Times published both papers and ran the classifieds and collected the revenue (our staff consisted only of the reporters, photogs, news and business staff). Then the Times sent the P-I's portion of the profits to our business manager. A long-running disagreement existed over the correct amount. Eventually, the tenseness erupted in a legal fight in 2006. It was settled in April 2007. The details of that settlement seem chilling in light of the P-I's demise as a print product today.

And now, it's over. At least, the print product is gone, with all the people needed to produce it. Good-bye, dear Old Friend. Such sad news for all of us who worked there, who read your pages, who loved to see the turning world globe atop the P-I building. For 146 years, you've served the people of the greater Seattle region. I wish you all the best in the new online venture even as I mourn the loss of jobs and a tangible, rustley paper to hold in my hands. Thank you for being part of my experience, because after I left to start a family, I began my freelance writing career.

Thank you, to the hard-working journalists and editors and copy staff who gave me my first education in the news business.

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