Saturday, January 10, 2009

Seattle P-I up for sale; could go online-only

By Seattle Times staff

Hearst Newspaper President Steven Swartz announces to the Seattle P-I newsroom a 60-day process to sell the newspaper.

Jan. 9, 2009: News reports say Hearst puts P-I up for sale, preparing to close it.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which first rolled off the presses in 1863 and has been the state's longest-publishing newspaper, is up for sale.

The newspaper's staff was called into a closed meeting today by Publisher Roger Oglesby. Present at the meeting was Hearst Newspaper President Steve Swartz, who told the newsroom that Hearst Corp. is starting a 60-day process to find a buyer.

If a buyer is not found, Swartz said, possible options include creating an all-digital operation with a greatly reduced staff, or closing its operations entirely.

In no case will Hearst continue to publish the P-I in printed form, Swartz said.

Regardless, he said, if no buyer is found, the P-I as a newspaper will not publish after the two months is up.

Swartz discounted rumors that Hearst, the P-I's owner since 1921, was interested in buying The Seattle Times newspaper.

He said the P-I has had operating loses since 2000, losing around $14 million this past year. Greater losses are anticipated this year, he said.

"Our journalists continue to do a spectacular job of serving the people of Seattle, which has been our great privilege for the past 88 years," Swartz said in a news release. "But our losses have reached an unacceptable level, so with great regret we are seeking a new owner for the P-I."

The announcement stunned the newspaper's staff, which first heard about the pending sale via television news reports Thursday night. The staff was called into a noon meeting today and given the news.

"I'm really, really distraught ... I was not expecting this," said longtime P-I environmental reporter Robert McClure.

For years, the staff had entertained the hope that Hearst would buy the family-owned Seattle Times, which Hearst has indicated it has wanted to do for years. But Swartz, who took over as president of Hearst newspapers last year, had other ideas.

"They were always out to buy the Times," McClure said. "I just didn't think they were going to fold up their tent and go home."

P-I breaking news editor Candace Heckman said the staff appeared stunned in the newsroom after the meeting.

"People cried, people are still crying, editors are slamming their doors," she said. "There's talking of drowning their sorrows."

Several people have since left the building. A few people are working on stories, but, "I am looking around a newsroom that is not working very much."

Longtime P-I columnist Joel Connelly met reporters outside the globe-topped P-I building overlooking Elliott Bay. He said the newsroom resembled a "yellow jacket nest." Connelly said he rode down the elevator with Managing Editor David McCumber, who Connelly said summed up the morning with a single profanity.

Kathy George, attorney for the Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town, said the group will explore options to see whether the P-I can be preserved. (The group emerged during the last JOA lawsuit to advocate for both newspapers' survival.) But she said it was not immediately apparent what the committee could do.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels this afternoon released a statement that said in part: "Newspapers may have fallen on hard times, but no one doubts their value in our democracy. Across the country, newspapers have cut staff and shuttered their doors, and we are all a little poorer ... Whatever the outcome, this is a big change for Seattle."
Seattle's daily newspapers: A timeline

The P-I is the oldest morning newspaper in the state of Washington.

The early years

1867: The newspaper Weekly Intelligencer, the origin of the Post-Intelligencer, is founded in Seattle.

1881: The Intelligencer combines with the Post to become the Post-Intelligencer.

1896: The Seattle Daily Times' new owner, "Colonel" Alden Blethen, publishes his first edition to challenge the older, more conservative P-I.

The middle years

1921: William Randolph Hearst takes over the Seattle Post- Intelligencer, revealed when Hearst's first editorial appears.

1930: The Ridder brothers of New York and St. Paul, Minn., buy a minority interest in The Times.

1936: A Newspaper Guild strike suspends publication of the P-I for nearly four months.

1946: The Blethen family fends off a hostile takeover attempt by the Ridder family.

1953: A Newspaper Guild strike suspends publication of The Times for three months.

The later years

1983: The Hearst Corp. and The Seattle Times Co. form a joint-operating agreement (JOA) in which the larger Times handles advertising, printing, promotion and distribution for both newspapers, but each continues to run separate, competing newsrooms. The P-I publishes mornings Monday-Saturday; The Times publishes Monday-Friday afternoons, Saturday-Sunday mornings.

1986: The P-I, no longer needing printing presses, moves into a new building on Elliott Avenue West, installing its trademark globe there.

2000: After renegotiating the JOA, The Times switches to morning publication, going head-to-head with the P-I. Later in the year, Newspaper Guild workers at the P-I, alongside those at The Times, go on strike. The P-I strike ends first, after 38 days, with the approval of a new contract.

2003: The Seattle Times attempts to end the JOA, but The Hearst Corp. sues The Times to stop the action. A long legal battle follows, and Hearst threatens to sell the P-I if the proceedings don't speed up. Cartoonist David Horsey wins a second Pulitzer Prize.

2006: McClatchy buys Knight Ridder, inheriting its Times stake.

2007: Hearst and The Times Co. settle new terms of the JOA.

Seattle Times staff reporters Sharon Chan, Bob Young, Mike Carter, Warren Cornwall, and Jim Brunner contributed to this report.

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