• Seattle another broken link in the chain
As Queen sang it, “Another one bites the dust.”
In this instance, we’re speaking of newspapers. Another closing right on the heels of an obviously panic-stricken industry’s flurry of insane cuts, give-back demands, sell-offs, restructuring, space-cutting, content-slagging, wildly flailing attempts to return to those glory days of 20+ percent profit margins that other industries could only dream about.
Some newspapers are in the dumper, true. But many only are making less profit than they did before. Underline that: A profit, just not as big. Nevertheless, they’re using the same excuse as the failing ones to shred the fabric of a media form vital to societal awareness and public service. The form that is being nibbled to death by bloggers, Web news “aggregators,” radio and TV — all of whom take reported, analyzed, edited information from newspapers rather than expend the time, effort and money it takes to do original work.
The latest victim of the newspaper blood-letting is the Seattle community, with the long-awaited D-day announced as tomorrow for the 146-year-old Post-Intelligencer.
The Hearst Corp., which had owned the newspaper since 1921, says it lost $14 million last year on the paper that had been part of a joint operating agreement (i.e., profit sharing) with the Seattle Times. It is dumping nearly all its P-I staff — about 145 of the 165 employees — and converting to an online newspaper.
It probably will do the same thing shortly in San Francisco, where it has been losing money at an even more obscene pace ever since it purchased the market’s largest newspaper, the Chronicle, and gave away its Examiner and millions of dollars to support it so it could avoid anti-trust lawsuits.
Hearst, although a legendary name in American newspapering for generations, long avoided public scrutiny of its finance because it was a private company: i.e., no public stock offerings. But it has had a very troubled newspaper division for years.
In the past 25 years or so (full disclosure: I worked for Hearst as an editor for more than 30 years) it closed newspapers in Baltimore (News American), Albany (the daily Knickerbocker News and the weekly Sun group), Clearwater, FL (Sun), San Antonio (Light) and Los Angeles (Examiner), practically gave away the daily Boston Herald as well as dozens of weekly newspapers in the LA market, and made its remaining newspaper properties pay for the barrels of red ink hemorrhaged in San Francisco and Seattle.
In both markets there was absolutely no sign of ever turning the financial corner — or even locating a corner to turn. It was purely backward management, confused marketing strategy, and, in the case of San Francisco, a failure to devise a coherent battle plan in what many consider one of the nation’s most lucrative media markets.
Hearst recently picked up several small Connecticut dailies at fire sale prices from their troubled owners, but that isn’t exactly a vote of confidence in the newspaper industry. Those papers already had been gutted to save money and are pale imitations of what good newspapers should be. Don’t look for investments there that will improve their journalistic quality.
Meanwhile, next up is the usual plank-walking for dozens more people and much of the viability of the products and their quality. The Albany Times Union has announced it is ending its contract with the Newspaper Guild and shortly will lay off dozens. The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News now are sharing copy-editing work, which is a joke considering the differences in the two Hearst markets and the lack of intimate knowledge one needs to truly be a good local paper.
People who have labored mightily for Hearst in many markets for many years now are paying the price for a lack of corporate foresight, an inability to navigate the treacherous waters of a new technological age, and the growing sense that Hearst, like other media companies, has given up the ghost of any idea of journalism as community service. The pledges are there. They’re just not being redeemed when it comes time.
A parting thought: The P-I is known for the 30-foot lighted globe that sits atop its Elliott Bay waterfront building. It has an eagle perched atop the globe with wings outstretched. Perhaps that could be converted, in the interest of truth in journalism, to a lesser bird laying an egg.