When the last print issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer rolled off the presses last Tuesday, it was another blow to the floundering newspaper industry—and to specialized reporting in particular.
The P-I had a long history of supporting top-flight science, environment, and public health coverage. Since at least the late 1980s, the paper has kept at least one reporter assigned to each beat, and when it folded last week had a total of four: one science, two environment, and one public health (plus the publication’s lead investigative reporter, who spent a considerable amount of time on environment issues). Though none of them were among the twenty or so staffers invited to continue working for SeattlePI.com, in interviews they agreed that the paper always encouraged and devoted significant resources to incisive reporting – a type of reporting that is now dangerously imperiled industry wide.
“We were really out to get things done—to write stories that would affect public policy and not just sort of interest people as shiny baubles or the latest charismatic megafauna,” said environment reporter Robert McClure, who had been with the paper since 1999. “I’ve been fortunate to have the backing of my editors to do five major projects in those 10 years, plus countless Page 1 enterprise and plenty of daily breakers,” he wrote in his farewell post at Dateline Earth, the paper’s environment blog, which he launched with colleague Lisa Stiffler in 2005.
“Listen, I’m not saying that the P-I was the world’s best paper, but I couldn’t have done that without editors that wanted to chase important stories,” investigative reporter Andrew Schneider, who focuses on food safety, told me. “You know, they put their money where their mouth was – the Libby stuff was 900 miles away our readership area and we did in excess of 200 stories on that over the years. Why would any paper do that? They seem to care a great deal.”
And that support never diminished. Schneider’s last investigation for the paper, published in December, was a six-part series, titled “Honey Laundering,” about the importation of Chinese honey contaminated with illegal antibiotics, and poor regulatory oversight in the face of soaring demand. The P-I spent “several thousand dollars” testing honey and gave Schneider five months to develop what began as a one-day story. “So even up to the end, they stood tall and spent the money to do the kinds of analyses that were needed,” he said.
Science reporter Tom Paulson agreed that the P-I was always willing to back science reporting, even when stories were controversial. In 1993, Paulson and his colleagues found themselves at the center of the Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak, which killed four children and sickened hundreds of others in the Seattle area. It was one of the first major outbreaks to draw major media attention, and the P-I sent Paulson around the country to speak with investigators about what had happened.
“It was basically crisis science reporting and very easy to get wrong,” he said. “A lot of people were mad, kids had died, and for public health officials it was like a war zone. It took them five days to figure out the source of the outbreak. They had a hint on third day [that it was Jack in the Box], and there was a big push for them to come out and say it, but the public health officials had to wait until they had sufficient evidence. That’s a real hard thing to get across to people, because it has to do with statistics and probability. It was challenging to write stories in the middle of a highly emotional crisis that weren’t just hysterical, and that were evidence based. And we did it; we did a good job.”
Indeed, such well-executed resource- and time-intensive projects were common at the P-I. Paulson cited his coverage of the Seattle-based Gates Foundation, which emerged as a major player in global health issues just after the millennium. Schneider cited his series last year on food industry workers’ exposure to diacetyl, a chemical butter flavoring linked to hundreds of cases of sometimes fatal lung damage. “The really bizarre thing is that the morning our last edition ran, the new Secretary of Labor announced actions to speed up the investigation into workers’ exposure to diacetyl,” Schneider said. “And now we have no place to run it.”