It was this day last year when news of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s impending shut-down hit the airwaves.
If you haven’t heard the story before: The P-I staff first learned of this terrible news by watching it on television.
It was after 5 p.m. and the staff was putting the paper to bed. A major winter storm had hit Washington state, and thus most of our daily coverage focused on that – I believe that I wrote something about hindered truck shipments into Seattle. Overall, it had been a satisfying day — plenty of news to fill our pages and I had beat deadline by about an hour.
But I wouldn’t be going home anytime soon.
Over in the business news section, editor Margaret Santjer saw something alarming on the television by the sports copy desk. She fumbled with the remote control to the business section’s television, trying to switch the station from CNBC to the local King-5 TV news.
What we saw on the screen was shocking: The Seattle P-I was up for sale and would likely close.
I fired off this e-mail to my closest friends and husband:
Subject: OH MY GOD WTF!!?!?!?!
I’m shaking so bad. everyone in pi gathered around the TV. this breakign news. WE KNOW NOTHING.
Source: Seattle P-I to be sold, or closed
04:58 PM PST on Thursday, January 8, 2009
By LINDA BYRON / KING 5 News
KING 5 news has learned that Seattle may soon become a one newspaper town. . . .
E-mails came flooding into me from friends who had heard the news. Amidst the shock, my editor realized that we had to report this development.
I followed up via e-mail to my core group of friends, “Great. Now I get to report this story. Trying to keep my composure and make calls.”
Reporter Dan Richman and I could not confirm the TV report that evening. A source/friend at King-TV told me that some producers there were uneasy about the story, but that it had been approved from on high. “I hope we’re right,” my television friend said. And then he paused awkwardly, “I mean, uh. . .sorry. . .”
I cut off his apology. I understood.
At one point after several unsuccessful calls, I slammed down the phone and said, “Linda Byron better have a damn good source!”
Boeing reporter James Wallace responded, “No. No, she better have a f*cking lousy source!”
I have to hand it to King-5: It was a great scoop. Some people in the newsroom said it was humiliating that we found out externally — imagine being scooped on our own demise!
Strangely, I did not share that sense of indignity. I tried to summon outrage, but for me the whole situation was just ironic.
I felt like I’d had plenty of personal scoops. Also, even though the business of media was one of many topics on my ever-enlarging-as-the-staff-was-shrinking beat, a P-I closure wasn’t on my radar.
In fact, in the past month I had been developing sources and monitoring the finances and court filings of our rival, The Seattle Times. That paper was so saddled with debt that it couldn’t pay its bills, and thus had to restructure and put properties up for sale. The banks were closing in with demanding covenants, and it seemed logical that the Seattle Times was on the brink of filing for bankruptcy protection. (Our closure was probably the paper’s lifeline.)
Also, as a business reporter who routinely tried to beat companies on their own layoff announcements, I felt like King-5 was giving me my just desserts. (Six months earlier, I’d sort of done it to Starbucks. Here’s a similar one on Getty Images and another on Safeco.)
Because we couldn’t confirm the report, we played it down. It ran in the bottom left corner of the business section (newly moved behind sports). The Seattle Times put its version, also unconfirmed, on the front page. I later found out from my sources at the Times that the editors there were shocked at how the P-I played the story. The Times’ confidence in its front-page placement came from its respect for King reporter Linda Byron, who is known around town for her diligence.
Before going home that night, wires editor Maren Hunt and I grabbed a neglected, dying, flimsy potted plant — sent weeks ago by a PR firm — and posted a sign to it that said, “Seattle P-I Official Plant.”
The next day, we found out that the King-5 report was true. I wrote to CBS MarketWatch’s Jon Friedman, “Things are crazy here. I’m writing the business news story about us…can you believe that? I just gathered newsroom quotes, interviewing crying reporters while I cried myself.”
That day, Dan Richman, Margaret Santjer and I fashioned a lede on our story of which I will always be proud: “After 146 years of delivering news, the Seattle P-I faces becoming what it has chronicled: history.”
Three months later, the newspaper shut down.
Dan and I reported that story, too. (This wasn’t even the first newspaper death I’d covered — two years earlier I chronicled the death of the King County Journal.)
There is something about the time-span of one year that makes you look back and assess. What a difference one year makes: One week in, and 2010 is already shaping up for me way better than the first week into 2009. So far, so good.
The economy is rebounding — taking its dear, sweet time, but rebounding. A redesigned Seattlepi.com lives on and thrives toward profitability. And I personally have found exciting and fulfilling work.
(Sadly, the P-I staff has scattered and some still have not found jobs. Investigative reporter Ruth Teichroeb’s “where are they now?” piece is here.)
During all of the closure mess, a film crew came in to use the P-I closure as its subject to compete in a 48-hour documentary challenge. They shot and edited this short film in just two days!
After a year of screenings at film festivals around the country, including at the Seattle International Film Festival, the video has been posted online. It stars me, former P-I managing editor David McCumber and P-I columnist Joel Connelly.
Watching it is what inspired this post.
Alternatively, here’s a link to the video where you can learn more about it.
I remember feeling sick right before posting the story and going on the air. I was a longtime PI subscriber and I have a lot of respect for the paper’s history of aggressive journalism. Believe me, no one in the KING-TV newsroom was gloating over the scoop. We’re fighting our own battle for survival in the broadcast industry.
Here’s a reflection on your reflection: Yesterday I reflected on the history of cell phones. One day I will tell my infant son, “When I was 18, I bought my first cell phone,” and he will will say, “Mom, you’re SO OLD!” Dearest Andrea, one day you get to say to your kids, “I used to write for a NEWSPAPER!” and then have to explain to them what a newspaper is.
And as you say, here’s to 2010.
Gotta wonder who tipped the TV people off.