Friday, July 3, 2009

I had a chat with Art Thiel at Seattle Post-Intelligencer offices on June 1st, 2009 (part 1)

The beginning of the end of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

(Interview from, June 1st, 2009)


Art Thiel grew up in Tacoma, went to college at Pacific Lutheran University. He has been at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 29 years, starting in 1980. At the Seattle PI he has been a sports columnist since 1987.


In 2003, he wrote Out of Left Field, a book on the Seattle Mariners. His latest book, The Great Book of Seattle Sports Lists, with co-authors Steve Rudman and Mike Gastineau is available in bookstores now. He also provides commentary weekly on KPLU-FM 88.5 every Friday.Also, every Friday at 3 p.m he is with Kevin Calabro on ESPN 710 AM.


Through nearly three decades of the newspaper’s operation Art has been there for the announcement of the end, the actual end of print, and the new beginning as an online news organization, SeattlePI.com.


After 146 years of operation On January 9th, 2009, the Seattle PI newspaper announced that barring a sale within 60 days the newspaper would either be web-only or cease operating. Two days later his article One paper can't contain all our voices, views was published.


Mike Baker: I would like to go back to January and work my way to, even, today.


Art Thiel: Ok.


Mike: On January 9th.


Art: Black friday.


Mike: Right, they announced the end of the end. two days later you wrote your first article about a one newspaper town, or, a zero newspaper town. so, what was the immediate change, the announcement was that they were going to stop printing or they are going to be an online publication. How did that go through this office?


Art: Just as a brief background, there were any number of pundits and civic leaders that had predicted the demise of the PI. Well, we had survived many of these alleged threats. People said this was only going to work five years because of the history of joint agencies (1983 Seattle Times and Seattle PI Joint Operating agreement).


Then there was the recession of 1990-91, we were going to be domed then.


Then the Times muscled its way into the morning market, with the PI’s reluctant agreement in 1999. People said, well, the PI’s dead then.


Then, of course, there was the strike, the PI’s dead then (7 week strike ending 1/3/2001). And, the times used the strike as an excuse to begin inducing losses in the Joint Operating Agreement. Hearst (PI’s publisher) knew that and sued to stop them in 2003. Four years later Hearst won a $24 million-dollar, well they did not win a judgement, they accepted a settlement from Frank Blethen (Seattle Times publisher), who paid Hearst to settle this dispute. Clearly he was deliberately trying to sabotage our production in order to make the PI go away.


So, the PI finally felt confident. We were at least on equal footing with the Times, and the further undermining of the agency had ceased.


Well, September of ‘08 comes the market crash. All sorts f things that had been threatening all newspapers, and these two here, came to a head, and started circling the drain. Somewhere along the way, as hindsight revealed, Heart decided to pull the plug here.


To get to January 9th, I had a tip, but I was unable to confirm it, but most of us were shocked that the advantage gained by the settlement in April of ‘08 meant nothing. And that we were, in fact, going to be the second major newspaper in the county this year to go down. Rocky Mountain News, actually, Rocky Mountain News hadn’t announced it was going down, but they crashed in the 60-day window we had before the online effort took hold.


Mike: They shut all the way down.


Art: Ya’, and there was no remaining online product.


So, there was all the emotions that you associate with a plant shutdown. I mean, there was anger, dismay, disappointment, bitterness, and all the K├╝bler-Ross stages of grief. We all went through that in varying degrees, and complicating the feeling was that none of us knew if we were to be among the anointed twenty that would survive. And, would we want to if offered? Because we didn’t know what they were offering, and we didn’t know what Hearst wanted the online edition to look like.


Mike: All kinds of risks. At that point, even today you could argue, that there isn’t a great model for an online edition.


Art: Right, this is pioneering, no one has done what we are doing.


Mike: Exactly, and so, I know that in Minneapolis, I think they had a weekly that went online.


Art: They are the remaining staff, the laid-off staffs of both Minneapolis and St. Paul papers created MinnPost (MinnPost.com). There is an equivalent in San Diego, called Voice of San Diego (VoiceofSanDiego.org). I think the St. Louis journalists got together and did a similar thing, that name escapes me (St. Louis Beacon, stlbeacon.org), but, there have been nascent efforts to create online newspapering in metro areas.


Mike: one of the different things here is that the owner-publisher is going that direction, where if you go back, McClatchy was selling-off. There was a lot of selling-off, there wasn’t somebody investing, and saying, we’re going to try this.


Art: Right.


Mike: So, this is an unusual, a big unknown for everyone here.


Art: It is, exactly


Mike: I remember, I saw online a panel discussion, I think it was late February, at downtown Seattle.


Art: Oh, the No News is Bad News? I was there (www.nonewsisbadnews.org/event1.html).


Mike: Right, as the lone print journalist on the panel.


Art: (laughs) That’s right.


Mike: As I was watching that, you had mentioned where the news comes from (a newsroom), and, it still comes from there. It isn’t necessarily delivered all the time in a print format, but that business cycle of printing it and getting paid has dissipated up to this point.


So, I’m wondering, some six weeks, or so, had passed since the announcement and this panel. So, when you’re in a room full of people all asking the question, What happens now, even the people that were supposed to be doing what was supposed to be happening now, like the West Seattle Blog (westseattleblog.com), they all seem to be trying to figure it out.


Was it far enough along here that it became clear that they were not going to be able to sell, and that they were likely going to go online?


Art: Well, at that point the sale period had expired as of January 9th, so that’s when they felt they could say this. but, what wasn’t known then was anything about Hearst’s agenda for the online operation. So, at that point, nobody knows. No one knew who would be retained, how many would be retained, and what the look of, and the ambition of the online website would be. And so, we were still in the Nether World of not knowing, and of not being sure wether, they hadn’t even set salaries. So, we all assumed it was going to be less money. But, Hearst was also competing against itself because, for people like me, who had been here a long time, I’ve been here 29 years, we had a big severance package. And so, it seemed, pretty unlikely that for anybody with, probably, 15 years of time that the Hearst offer of employment here would match that one big chunk of severance.


So, a lot of people, they said, I can’t imagine Hearst offering me anything I want, and so they were playing out the string for the 60 days. The issue, of course, for many people is healthcare coverage, ‘cause the one advantage that this newsroom now is that Hearst has continued healthcare, whereas, those of us that accepted the severance got 90 days of COBRA which will expire July 1st. And so, we are going to be out on private pay healthcare which is obviously quite expensive.


So, all that was going through people’s day-to-day existences, and there was something of a moving target as to when the last print product would be. A lot of people were reading tea leaves in the Hearst’s motives and say, oh they’re going to pull the plug now, and right about that time the Rocky Mountain News went down in February. So, well Hearst could do that in a day.


Well, they actually wound up being 66 days, or whatever it was. And so, in February when that online meeting people were just beginning to explore, well, what else is there? What can I do as an individual, what can we do collectively? That’s when the Seattle Post-Globe people (seattlepostglobe.org) started having their meetings, and discussions. Can we put an online product out that’s somewhat similar to MinnPost, or Voice of San Diego, meetings took place to try to create that. And there were, also, people splintering off in to do their own things, other people leaving the business, other people retiring, vacationing, whatever.


So, there was no particular cohesion, everyone had a certain place in their lives, ya’ know, if you got two kids in college you’ve got to come up with something. If you’re near retirement, you’re a different story, or if you’re a single person, all kinds of things, everybody had kind of a different agenda. So, there was no really cohesive element. Then, and now, no single angel investor has emerged to be the life force like it was in Minnesota to sustain an operation until it could get, probably, to be break even.


Mike: At the same time, if you step away from here, and create your own, you are then competing with the PI or Hearst as an online entity, if you go that direction. So, people choosing to go that direction, it seems to me, that they, were, were people breaking into specialty subjects, or how did that come about?


Art: There was nothing that organized. It was just everybody who just thought that they had a talent or a skill who wanted to try to pursue it, who were looking at options. But, I mean, there’s maybe a collection of 15 to 20 people contributing to Seattle Post-Globe, which is the biggest group. But there is another group just started, just today, called investigate west (www.invw.org launches July 8th), which is lead by assistant metro editor Rita Hibbard and has several people who made their living investigative reporting, are together, for a website, that they hope will be sponsored. And, I think they had affiliation with University of Washington grant money that will help sustain them for a while. That’s another experiment. I’m working on a website with my colleague Steve Rudman that will off sports commentary, per haps, on a subscription basis (www.nwsportspress.com).

So, everybody’s got a different agenda, and a different timeline. And, obviously, it varies with urgency, a lot of people with younger kids are saying I’ll take any job I can get; PR, or construction.


Mike: But that’s not your position, that’s not where you’re at?


Art: Right, I want to continue in journalism, and I want to continue with this website. And the PI, also, Hearst did not fully commit to the electronic version until early in March. So, we didn’t know if they were going to pull this trigger, and they finally did. And they belatedly, at the end of that period, said ok, “you, you, you, and you”, and these steps [gestures] go up to the second floor where they were meeting everyone and making their proposals. And so, it was a very strange period there in mid-March where the phone would ring, and somebody would say, “come up stairs to the meeting room”. So, you’d watch who would go up the stairs to see who got the job, or, they came back down and said “no”, ‘cause some people did turn it down.

. . .


This is the end part 1 of the conversation.

I had a chat with Art Thiel at Seattle Post-Intelligencer offices on June 1st, 2009, as part of a classroom assignment I was taking at the University of Washington (COM495 with my host, Steve Scher).

I wanted to know how technology has had an impact on society, in this case, the internet and the newspaper.


As it turned out, I only needed to submit the audio recording for the classroom assignment. Unfortunately, for the past couple weeks my mind kept returning to the interview. To be fair to Art Thiel, and his generosity with his time, I will publish the transcription of the interview here, lightly edited (to remove my rambling).


This is part 1, the beginning of the end. The middle of the end will arrive in about a week, and the end of the end a week after. The next two parts are much shorter (I promise).


Happy Independence Day, Art!

Mike Baker

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http://ManyWordsForRain.blogspot.com