Friday, November 14, 2008

Signs of the Times

So I have been watching, and increasingly noting in these columns, the slow and apparently inevitable demise of the Seattle Times.

Theirs has not been a sudden death, like the buy-out and immediate crapification of the Seattle Weekly, but rather the slow wasting illness, as capacity is slowly lost and tolerable quirkiness is confirmed as a growing and dangerous lack of capability.

The signs and portents have been gathering like crows along the roofline. The business section ceases to be an independent section. The editorial section is gutted, its letters sent on-line. Doonesbury shrinks to almost unreadability and is dispatched to the comics page. Loss of top talent like Postman, who could maintain both online and press presence. Sell-off of other properties owned by the paper (a brace of papers in Maine). Hamhanded attempts at building a Web 2.0 community by recruiting readers as contributers (don't think of them as scabs - think of them as unpaid interns).

And now, job reductions. About 140 total, includes 31 in the newsroom, including 19 of which chose to leap as opposed to being pushed, and therefore getting a better class of parachute for the trip down. Editors, reporters, photographers.

And I have mixed emotions on it all. The Times makes great pains to pitch itself as a local paper, in terms of being locally owned. And any loss of locally-owned media is worrisome. But that local ownership tends to be conservative in nature, and is often an odd match for the readership it claims to serve. Usually its conservative nature confines itself to the now-useless editorial page, which considers the important litmus test of the past decade to be elimination of the Estate Tax. This was a pretty tolerable arrangement.

But in its dotage, it has let that slant expand, not only to its placement of articles but to the nature of those articles as well. It has become a given that bad news for the Dems gets front page treatment but problems for the GOP are buried in the back of the B section. For example, the questions of whether endorsed faves Dino Rossi and Dave Reichert may have violated campaign law are minimized, or completely absent from the paper.

But that a Dem candidate may have misrepresented her Harvard education? Front page material, A-section. With an enthusiasm that would make a neophyte lapdancer blush, the Times serviced the needs of the Republicans with a hit piece so virulent that they had to change their online versions to hide the worst of it. Turning a tight race into a significant win for the incumbent, the Times not only rewrote the press release given to them but gave it prominence. It is a sign of the diminishing capabilities of the paper that not only they ran such agitprop, but did so in a clumsy matter that left their fingerpints all over the weapon.

So the question becomes, at what point does one abandon a newspaper? The Times has continually had good science and ecological reporting, and its book two-page spread in the Sunday edition remains one of its few readable parts of the paper (My Sunday-morning reading experience as been speeding up over the past few months). It still has columnists worth seeking out, like sports reporter Ron Judd, who actually made me care about the America's Cup. But the goods are increasingly being replaced by the bads and the absences.

And before I hear from my all-tech friends, a newspaper remains portable, recyclable, and semi-permanent. You can set your cereal bowl on top of it with little problem. You can clip something out of it without printer technology. And if you spill your coke on it, the loss is pennies as opposed to four figures worth of dollars. Macy's ads are not as nearly as irritating as popups.

So for the moment, I only support as I can, correct where I must, and hope for the best. Recovery is possible, but with the economy tanking and the Seattle Sports teams exploring the depths of despair (it could have been worse - we could have still had the Sonics in town), it is likely that things will worsen before they improve.

More later,

Update: I mention the paper's superior science reporting, and they turn around and deliver this excellent report of MRSA in our local hospitals (Short form: Preventable but we're not doing it). Good reporting, and I hope the reporters still have their jobs.