Friday, January 30, 2009

The Paper Chase

About a week ago, the Lovely Bride brought home a copy of the local Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and I was struck by how much it reminded me of the newspapers I have grown up with. Mostly B/W, lot of pages, lot of ads, multiple sections and inserts. There was even a political cartoon and letters to the editor on the editorial page.

Two things amazed me. One was how pared down my regular daily, the Seattle Times had become. The other was the realization that the heavier, meatier paper, the P-I, was the one that was going out of business and may be history by March.

It is kind of a weird feeling. It is like having two older uncles, both of whom are getting up there in years. One has a terminal diagnosis but seems hell-bent on living his life as he has lived it up to the last possible moment - that's the P-I. The other has gone on a strict regimen, has dropped weight to the point that he is a mere shadow of his former self, seems determined to press on, yet is continually surrounded by nebulous rumors that he too is not long for this world, and when the end comes it will be with suddenness that will surprise everyone.

The rumors are that the Times is about to seek bankruptcy protection. That they are trying to sell a lot of useful real estate is a cruddy market. That there is a hang-up in their unloading of some newspapers in Maine (the Seattle media always calls them "the newspapers in Maine", when they really should be called "The largest newspapers in Maine"). Meanwhile, they have continued to revise and experiment with what they are putting in the paper, cutting down their diet, using more color, referring more to the web, running thinner editions with more items per page (and with that, fewer ads). They even, upon outcry, brought back the NYTimes crossword (since a crossword is one of those places where newsprint is superior to pixels) and restored the comic "Candorville" (though at the price of smothering "Lola" with a pillow in the middle of the night and burying her in the online editions).

But it remains a weird time for print media in general. Even if the Times does declare bankruptcy, it would put it in company with a number of media giants like Chicago's Tribune Company. And I mention the Tribune because all the pieces of the Tribune organization seem to be making money, they just can't handle the debt load of all their acquisitions they have made. And in the end that may be the greatest sins of all these companies - not that they are losing money, but rather bought some big vacation homes and suddenly are having trouble with the mortgages.

And as long as I am beating the relative analogy to death, there are the two weird cousins, the Seattle weekly newspapers. Since it was swallowed by Village Voice Media (despite its illustrious name a Potemkin village for a more conservative chain out of Arizona), the Seattle Weekly has suddenly gone from swaggering political reporting to gingerly avoiding such sensitive subjects, like the cousin whose new spouse does not appreciate such outspoken antics. Despite this, they still manage a good, solid article every blue moon, like this one which provides a good history of our senior senator, while performing the double backflip of simultaneously congratulating and chastising her for bringing more federal money into the state.

And the Stranger shows up in this journal more often, and has been that skate punk cousin that suddenly turns out to be surprisingly knowledgeable about how local government functions. I've talked about them before, and one of their strong points is their online presence, which provides rapid but often extremely localized reporting (Shooting in Belletown? All over it. Floods in Lewis County? Not so much).

In fact online may be the final resting place of read local news. Most of the old hipsters of the Weekly, the ones that refer to the Boeing crash of the 70's as 'the good old days', have ended up at Crosscut, which is seeking a working model for financing. And a new entry is Publicola, which is already reporting inside conflicts and intraparty brawls from Olympia, something that has been missing for a while in more traditional venues. So I suppose there is still hope.

As for me, I'm kinda hoping Seattle's sports teams improve, since watching the media seems to have replaced watching the Mariners limp along and hoping that Oklahoma City's new NBA team continues to suck rocks.

More later,