January 28th, 2009 by Clark Humphrey

…from the handsome Seattle City Council chambers. The room, and the new City Hall it’s in, may go down in history as among the last huge publicly-funded examples of New Seattle world-class-osity before economic conditions made such statements fiscally obsolete.

Today’s meeting is of the council’s Culture, Civil Rights, Health and Personnel Committee. (I wouldn’t have put all those functions in one heap, but what do I know?)

Nick Licata heads this committee. Jean Godden and Tom Rasmussen are also here. Right now, they’re going through regular committee business, to wit interviewing potential members of a LGBT health task force. The item I’m here for, a panel discussion on saving daily newspapers, will follow later in the meeting.

So let me give you a verbal image of the chambers, since many of you haven’t been here. It’s a big, bright, uber-clean room finished in light wood tones, glass, polished steel, and black vinyl seat covers.

Now the newspaper panel’s being seated.

Your panelists are:

  • Roger Simpson and Doug Underwood, UW communications profs.
  • Liz Brown, Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild.
  • Tracey Record, West Seattle Blog.
  • Anne Bremner, co-chair of Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town.
  • David Brewster, founder of Crosscut and Seattle Weekly.
  • Jennifer Towney, Peoria (IL) Newspaper Guild (by phone).
  • Beth Hester, station manager, Seattle Channel.

Licata’s now reading from Jim McDermott’s P-I guest op-ed. I’ll post a link to it later. (Update: Here it is.)

Now, Licata’s reciting statistics about the Huffington Post. It’s more popular than all but eight newspaper sites. He didn’t mention that HuffPo still doesn’t pay its bloggers.

Licata sez he loves reading print, but acknowledges “we may all have to adopt to our changing ways.”

Prof. Roger Simpson tells of his long career working for newspapers and being a scholar about them. We’ve had daily newspapers for 220 years. Presently 1,400 dailies in the US, down 200 from 20 years ago. Total readership’s steadily declined also. In 1900, most households got 2-3 papers a day. Now, less than half even get one. “The newspaper though has always been the center for the consciousness of a community.”

The government, Simpson notes, has been wary of regulating this industry from an antitrust standpoint, until joint operating agreements were OK’d in 1972. Twenty-nine JOAs eventually formed. Today there are only nine JOAs left, including Seattle’s.

Prof. Underwood continues the talk about the industry’s changes. The newspaper we know is a product of an industrial era, and is subject to changes in technologies. JOAs, he says, were undermined when the Feds allowed the second papers in St. Louis and Miami to shut down but continue to share profits with the surviving papers of their towns.

Underwood says local-monopoly papers have become stodgy, and are having a hard time transforming themselves. Sites like HuffPo draw readers more effectively than papers’ sites with personalities and panache. But sites like HuffPo “depend on existing news companies to provide the product they riff off of.” In Norway the govt. subsidizes second newspapers in major cities. Should we?

Bremner: We started the Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town [CTNT] in ’03. Every citizen has a public responsibility. There’s so many important issues for us in having two newspapers in this town. We were pleased to be involved all the way in preserving the P-I for a while.

Bremner introduces Kathy George, one of her committee colleagues (and a onetime P-I reporter). She says they’re considering all options. A few ideas people are kicking around: Finding a civic-minded buyer or group to buy the P-I. The city council could provide leadership in guiding a purchase. Creating an endowment or non-profit to support in-depth reporting on local government and other community interests. Creating an employee-owned newspaper, such as the one in Omaha. You’ve read in local blogs about the possibility of creating a local public development authority. An online-only P-I is better than no P-I. But CTNT calls on Hearst to reveal its intentions as soon as possible, and to publicly reveal whether Hearst is making its annual, required $1 million payment to reserve its first right to buy the Seattle Times, should the latter be offered for sale. The public’s help in seeking these answers is invited.

Godden asks if an online-only P-I would still be part of a JOA. Kathy says the terms of the JOA are ambiguous about this.

Jane (sorry, no last name recorded here), another CTNT associate, asks Underwood about Norway’s subsidized papers. Underwood says there are official barriers keeping governments from influencing editorial content in these papers.

Licata asks Brown about Hearst announcing it may fire all the P-I staff. Brown mentions the Rocky Mountain News, Detroit News, and Chicago Sun-Times facing potential demise. The Baltimore Sun and Minneapolis Star-Tribune are in bankruptcy.

Newspaper Guild membership has gone from 820 to 420 members locally since ’00. Unionized press workers have gone from 140 to 43. Some 120 P-I jobs may be lost.

Brown says the Guild’s negotiating severance conditions with the P-I. She says Hearst said they didn’t know whether they’ll keep the option to buy the Times. “You don’t hear a lot of journalists out there talking about what’s happening… I don’t think they feel empowered to talk about the conditions of their industry.”

Towney, on the phone from Illinois, expresses her alarm about Starbucks’ layoffs. “Coffee and newspapers go together.” She lauds the value of reporters who have the time/money for long term research. Models she’s explored: Employee ownership, co-op ownership (“serving members over profits, in this case readers”), and non-profit ownership, a la NPR. She notes four papers in the US are owned by charitable trusts, but the papers themselves are still organized as for-profit entities. Her Peoria group opted to explore a hybrid of the three models. It would have both employee and community stockholders, and would be tied somehow to a subsidized non-profit. The Peoria paper had been employee-owned in the 1980s, then sold to a chain for $175 million. But that chain put it up for sale in 2006. The staff looked to the community for help. The paper was bought by another chain instead. The Peoria Guild held a public meeting to gather support. “The only thing stopping us from putting it out to the community is we don’t have a credible [business] model if we run a paper the way papers are run the way they’ve been run.”

Towney continues: They next explored an “L3C” organization. “Low profit limited liability corporation.” A foundation can invest in it. Its charter says community service comes before profit. Companies under it must create jobs and provide vital social benefits. “It opens up new funding channels.” The IRS, though, has consistently denied non-profit status to newspapers. Congress is now about to introduce a bill to allow L3Cs nationally.

Record: When you talk about saving newspapers, you really talk about saving journalism. Newspapers as a product and an organizational model may be becoming obsolete.

There are new ways of news gathering and dissemination coming up. In some ways they may be better than newsprint. Her site and similar ones around town have 100,000 regular readers; specifically in neighborhood-specific info. “We are serving our neighborhoods on a granular level to a greater extent than may have ever been done before.” Don’t be afraid of the future necessarily. Find ways to support journalism, the people who do the incredible work. This may be in blogs and smaller online operations. Her site is finally paying its way. Also: More discussion should be put into increasing information access to seniors and low-income people who don’t have computers.

Brewster: The news industry needs to find other bases of revenue other than advertising. The promise of flow of advertising revenue to the web is still a promise but it has slowed down. There are six other local web-only news sites around the country. In San Diego, Dallas, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Vancouver. The ones that are doing well are non-profit. Crosscut has converted into a non-profit corporation, Crosscut Public Media. It goes from one revenue stream, advertising, to three. The others are membership, as in public radio, and grants.

“Allow these web developments to flourish instead of planting new big oak trees to overshadow them.” Good stuff will grow underneath that if you let them and don’t impose solutions.

Young readers are very adept at navigating this [online] landscape. It doesn’t take the kind of mediation and paternalism these older models have provided.

Relax a bit. Allow the creativity, the ingenuity to figure what are good ways this will come about. It probably won’t be the Twin Peaks model of two equally large newspapers. It will probably be something with one large peak and 14 smaller peaks.
Licata asks Brewster, are these web projects hobbies for their contributors or real careers? Brewster: about three quarters of Crosscut’s writers are reimbursed, some at wages that can get you through life, some below that. The model is definitely to pay writers. Record: Our writers are paid, and we expect pro journalism standards from them.

Hester: Our footprint is local. While we don’t have great numbers of viewers on cable, online our numbers have grown tremendously; 5 million hits last year, twice the year before. We’re definitely trying to accommodate the transition to online. I don’t mean just taking our television product and putting it online, but providing additional information and interaction.

I don’t have the answer for print, other than this: We’ve actually been the beneficiary of corporate media downsizing. We’ve been able to use the resources of very talented people who’ve worked here in print and TV.

Yet we certainly don’t have the capacity to make up for the loss of talent in investigative reporting that comes from print journalism.

Underwood talks about the need for “the public sphere.” The Super Bowl’s the only place anymore where you can run ads that everyone will see. For many years, our democracy has thrived despite horrible coverage by the newspapers. Our UW interns provide half the Olympia press corps of the entire state. There are ways to do better journalism than has been done by the dailies. But where do we re-create the “public sphere,” some viable place which carries a sense of importance.
Someone in the audience asks via a notecard if the P-I could become a regional insert in the NY Times. Underwood remarks that we’d have to see it the NYT remains viable.

Brewster lauds the cooperation and “coop-etition” among online news sites/blogs.
Bremner: It’s not blogs or papers. It’s both. But there’s civic pride at stake here. We’re losing a part of Seattle.
Godden asks Simpson about the role of universities in supporting an independent voice in local journalism. Simpson notes the UW’s intern programs and other ways the U connects to the community. Underwood notes the Univ. of Missouri runs the “second paper” in Columbia MO. Serious journalists in all these areas will need to get together and figure out what the new model is.

Record notes corporate ownership of media isn’t necessarily something to save at all costs.

Licata asks how these new models will allow people the time for investigative reporting, and jokingly states, “the city of Seattle is not going to buy the P-I.” Yet he’d like to play a role in finding a solution. “I think at least we helped in this event to raise awareness.”

I’m back home now. What did we learn from this?

We learned about L3C corporations. A quick online search seems to imply these currently exist only in Vermont. And we heard a lot of people give general ideas on how the journalism profession as a whole may be going in the next few years, or how they wished it would be going.

We didn’t hear any concrete schemes to save the printed P-I and/or seattlepi.com.

But then again, it’s still Hearst’s thang, to sell or scrap as it wishes.

I wish there was some real civic leadership around here, to herd and announce a big group of civic-minded investors to first take the P-I local, then to mold the product and the organization into something with staying power.

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