Group proposes public effort to save Seattle P-I

SEATTLE — A group devoted to keeping two daily newspapers in Seattle is pushing a community effort to buy the Seattle Post-Intelligencer from Hearst Corp.

It might be the best hope for keeping the P-I alive, the Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town said Wednesday, adding that it would welcome the involvement of political, business, labor and community leaders.

“The goal is to ensure that the P-I, which has been publishing local news daily since 1863, is not lost forever,” the group said in a news release.

Hearst announced Jan. 9 that it was putting the P-I up for sale, and that if no buyer was found within 60 days, the paper would be shut down or converted to an Internet-only publication with a skeleton staff. On Wednesday, in response to questions from the group, Hearst wrote to say it still had made no decision on whether to keep the P-I as an online publication.

Seattle attorney Anne Bremner, co-chairwoman of Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town, said her group would support any plan that could work, whether that means perpetuating the P-I as a nonprofit or low-profit Web site or even finding a buyer to continue printing the paper — an extremely unlikely outcome.

The P-I, which has no presses of its own, is printed by The Seattle Times under a joint-operating agreement that dates to 1983. The Times handles all nonnews functions for both papers in exchange for 60 percent of their joint profits.

Some P-I workers said they would welcome a community effort — “It’s at the point where you’re going to go to any party that gives you an invitation,” said reporter Mike Lewis — but hurdles abound.

Much wealth and venture capital have dried up in the troubled economy, so it’s unclear who might contribute on a large scale. There are unresolved legal questions about the state of the JOA, and it remains to be seen whether an Internet-only P-I would be viable to begin with.

It’s a popular news Web site here, but would it remain so with a greatly reduced staff, especially in light of competition from other recently founded local news sites, such as crosscut.com?

P-I reporters have explored several options, Lewis said, including creating an investigative online newsroom or other alternative to seattlepi.com. Some held a conference call with editors of voiceofsandiego.com, a nonprofit news Web site supported by grants from foundations as well as community donations, to discuss a similar approach in Seattle.

Politicians have also started to weigh in, with Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata devoting a committee meeting to exploring what the public could do to help preserve the P-I’s editorial voice. Democratic U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott of Seattle has started speaking with colleagues about what Congress might do to help the rapidly failing newspaper industry, such as by revising the tax code to make it easier for papers to operate as nonprofits. Papers around the country have cut print editions, declared bankruptcy and laid off staff as circulation and advertising revenues plummet.

“This is not just an industry; it’s an industry that is one of the pillars that keeps our democracy strong and vibrant,” said Mike DeCesare, McDermott’s press secretary. “What’s happening to one of our hometown newspapers is happening to hometown papers all over the place. We believe that’s a significant national issue because of what’s at stake.”

The Seattle Times, owned by the Blethen family with a 49.5 percent stake held by McClatchy Co., is also in dire economic straits. The paper has cut nearly 500 positions in the past year, and 500 managers and nonunion staff have been ordered to take a week off without pay by the end of this month. On Wednesday, the paper announced the latest bad news: It’s asking all of its unions to contribute savings equivalent to 12 percent of pay and benefit expenses.

Alayne Fardella, senior vice president for business operations at The Times, wrote in a staff memo the paper is in “survival mode.”

Spokeswoman Jill Mackie said The Times had no comment on Hearst’s letter to the Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town, which also revealed two other details: That Hearst would not make its final $1 million payment to The Times for the right of first refusal to buy The Times if it is put up for sale; and that if Hearst runs the P-I as an Internet-only operation, it will do so outside the JOA.

Hearst was required to make the $1 million annual payment through this year under a settlement reached with The Times in 2007, as part of litigation over whether The Times could exit the JOA. It’s unclear whether The Times might take steps to try to get that money, or how Hearst could legally operate seattlepi.com outside the JOA — or whether the sides have privately reached an agreement.

“We would be interested to know how The Times feels about these things,” said Two-Newspaper Town attorney Kathy George.

Longtime P-I columnist Joel Connelly said that amid the frantic public discussions, “One rule applies to everything that’s going to go on in the next month and a half: Those who know nothing will say everything, those who know everything will say nothing.”

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