behind the news

Short-Shrifting Seattle

Regional reporting will suffer as the P-I moves online
March 18, 2009

Twelve years ago, I left the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and went from doing journalism to teaching it. I’ve thus had the luxury of watching my old paper’s survival struggle from the academy—rather than the breadline. And now I’m debuting as a blogger just as the P-I goes paperless and many of my old colleagues head for the unemployment office.

The Hearst Corporation, which owns the P-I, has been tightlipped on its plans to lure readers, ads, and profits. Of course it’s no accident that Hearst is conducting this online-only experiment in the land of a thousand laptop coffee shops, the birthplace of Microsoft,, and Starbucks.

One thing is certain: the newly constituted online P-I can give only short shrift to the work that was once its mainstay—consistently uncovering news that was important to Pacific Northwest readers but also of great interest to a national audience. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, we competed fiercely for such stories with the Seattle Times, the Tacoma News Tribune, the Portland Oregonian, the regional AP desk, and even Seattle television stations. The papers each had aggressive investigative reporters in the newsrooms. They had one or more correspondents in D.C., (including me) bird-dogging the congressional delegations, the White House, and federal agencies.

We broke stories on Boeing contracting scandals, radiation leaks and security lapses at the Hanford nuclear power plant. We scrapped to get the latest on the spotted owl versus loggers forest preservation conflict and the Microsoft anti-trust probe. The P-I drew attention to faulty federal meat inspection that had led to a deadly e coli poisoning outbreak—“The Jack-in-the-Box Hamburger Tragedy,” as it was known in the Northwest. The Seattle Times exposed Sen. Brock Adams, D-Wash., as a sexual harasser and drove him from office. The Oregonian revealed that Rep. Wes Cooley, R-Ore., had lied about his war record, ending his political career as well. And so it went.

Interesting stories? Yes. Would The New York Times, The Washington Post, or other national news outlets have ferreted out most or all of these stories independently? I doubt it.

The wave of bureau closings and massive budget cuts of the past few years reduced such reporting to a trickle. Still, the P-I continued to uncork the occasional big one. As my old colleague Joel Connelly put it in a recent P-I column: “Our paper has painstakingly detailed how FBI agents and dollars were diverted from white-collar crime to the war on terrorism . . . We’re still investigating, be it convicted felons peddling home loans, or a multinational mining company that walked away from cancers it caused in a Montana town . . .”

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But what now? While signing up some has-been politicians as “luminary” bloggers, Hearst is slashing the paid staff to approximately twenty reporters and editors. The paper’s most experienced, street-wise journalists are taking severance.

One notable exception is columnist Connelly, who will go on wielding his big P-I stick. Joel is the Teddy Roosevelt of Northwest journalism, right down to the mustache, boyish energy, and powerful hulking frame. Like TR, he loves the outdoors, and disdains cheats and scoundrels. He’s fascinated with the good, bad, and ugly of American politics.

That’s a good thing, because Joel is going back to daily political reporting and will, at the same time, continue banging out his columns. “I’ll be covering everyone from our oldest U.S. Senator to the most boring Seattle City Council candidate speaking at Lakeview community church,” he told me over the phone. “Let’s just say it’s going to be challenging.”

No kidding. Twenty years ago, Joel had the stamina of a mountain goat. He produced more good work than two or three solid reporters combined. But he’s now in his early sixties, and it sounds like he’ll be trying to do the work of ten.

I can see him with a phone to each ear. He’s typing with his toes. He’s whirling like a dervish between keyboards, creating three stories and a column simultaneously — less TR now, more like . . . John Henry, steel drivin’ man. Fighting with a frenzy to hold “progress” at bay and save the soul of his trade. But wielding a steno pad, not the spike hammer of legend. I’m afraid he’s overexerting himself. Don’t die with that notebook in your hand, old friend!

By the way, in order to keep his job and go on making a difference, Joel agreed to pay more for medical insurance and forego a sizeable severance package. P-I readers are lucky to have him. But let’s pray that Hearst finds the key to making serious money online. It can’t provide journalism that is consistently inspired, thorough, or comprehensive with a skeleton staff—even with Teddy Roosevelt and John Henry in the bullpen.

Christopher Hanson is a contributing editor of CJR.