Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Demise of the P-I

So today is the last edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, making Seattle a one-daily-paper town. The paper will be survived by its on-line phantom, in the same manner as Dungeon and DRAGON survive in pixelated format at WotC site.

I mourn the disappearance of the P-I in the same fashion that I regret the disappearance of the coffee shop on the corner that I don't go to, or the local store that doesn't ever seem to have pants in my size. I regret its loss as part of the neighborhood, but I haven't done a whole lot to keep it in business.

When we first moved out here, ten years back, we tried out both local papers. The P-I was part of the Hearst chain, a little more Seattle-centric, and little more sensational. The Times was locally owned, more conservative, and had a bit more of a regional spread (it mentioned Renton!). They also had better science coverage, as well as carrying Doonesbury on their otherwise-conservative-pitched editorial page. We went with the Times.

So the impact of the loss of the P-I is on one hand minimal. The Times may take a more liberal swing to pick up the lost market, or may go even more conservative now without a balancing force (Regardless, it will defend to its dying day the right of wealthy newspaper owners to avoid estate taxes). On the other hand, we as a community are lessened by the loss of major paper.

One reason is that a reduced newspaper presence results in less engagement in local issues and politics. It has been no great shakes of late, given that both papers were reducing their reporting headcount and thereby their coverage, but without the fourth estate to shine bright lamps on them, institutional rot sets in at a rapid pace.

Similarly, the reduced exposure to the arts makes it harder to make people aware of things that are new and different, which feeds the steepening spiral of less people engaging with the arts. Even if you don't go to any of the dozens of shows, exhibits, or festivals, knowing they are there pulls people together. It helps define us as a community to know about Sakura-Con or the latest play at the Rep or who's musical career has been embalmed and is on display at the Emerald Queen Casino.

The P-I will survive as an on-line aggregator-style version of a newspaper. this only works, of course, as long as there are things to aggregate. The increasing use of such sites are also vulnerable to manipulation, astroturf, and sockpuppetry. These problems exist in print, but the longer cycle time of a newspaper allows more time for sources to be investigated and bias discovered and reported. Now the press to publish is instantaneous, and unless kept under a firm hand and watchful eye, can quickly go astray.

And oddly enough, this is what newspapers bring you. It is the talent and the stories and the cartoons, but it also an editorial guidance. THIS story rates the front page. THIS is important but can be tucked back a few pages. THIS merits a summary. This one? Something smells bad - let's check it out, first. That can be what the electro-P-I has, but the jury will remain out.

Newspapers also, oddly, bring you stuff you didn't necessary want, or don't know you want. You don't want to know about a politician's problems until they are presented to you. You aren't going to go look for information about recalls but you'd like to have that information available when they happen. You don't need to know about unrest in Pakistan ... yet. The newspapers are supposedly the first draft of history, and with them we can see, in tangible form, what we think and what we want to think.

So long to the P-I. Your cousin, the Times isn't looking too healthy at the moment as well. And may you unlock the secret to online publishing and continue to be a force in Seattle (at least, you could catch up with the Stranger Blog.

More later,