With a little more than a month left in the Hearst Corporation's sales offer of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to a qualified buyer, the multimedia giant has not said whether it's maintaining an option to purchase the P-I's rival daily, the Seattle Times.
The multimedia corporation, by contract, is first in line to purchase the Times should its family ownership under the Blethen Co. decide to sell. In a Feb. 2 letter by the Committee for a Two Newspaper Town, Hearst and the P-I were asked whether Hearst made a $1 million payment due Feb. 1 to maintain this right of first purchase.
Knowing the answer, wrote the letter's authors, Anne Bremner and Phil Talmadge, "could cause more or less alarm, depending on preferences and viewpoints." Still, "employees of the Times and the P-I should be prepared for any impact the answer might have on their career choices."
If the community knew that Hearst was maintaining an interest in buying the Times, "Wouldn't you think that would change the way the community is responding?" says Kathy George, an attorney and former reporter who acts as legal counsel for the Committee for a Two Newspaper Town. "To the extent that plans are still unclear, it makes it hard to know what to do."
Worst case scenario: the Times, which joined the P-I last year in losing millions, could also close, she says. "Blethen is having such a hard time that we could end up a zero-newspaper town."
In response to the letter, P-I publisher Roger Oglesby deferred comment to Hearst. Hearst corporate communications staffer Paul Luthringer says the company is reviewing the letter and preparing a response. Luthringer refused to say whether the $1 million payment had been made.
George joined educators and new-media journalists Jan. 28 at a Seattle City Council meeting to discuss ways to save the P-I. The group surveyed the possibility of non profit or employee-based models of ownership, including what's known as a low-profit, limited liability corporation, or L3C. Peoria, Ill. community leaders are trying to sustain a daily paper organized as an L3C, but need changes in the federal tax code to allow the participation of nonprofits, which could become institutional investors. Meeting chair and Councilmember Nick Licata has forwarded legislation to Rep. Jim McDermott (D - Seattle).
The meeting also peered into the future of the media landscape, which all participants said would be barren without daily beat reporters. Online journalism, however, already offers a vivid and informative community news source in numerous Seattle neighborhoods, said Tracy Record, editor of the West Seattle Blog. Record represented, she said, "half a dozen of us [local websites] that are really serious about gathering news." They began "because at a neighborhood level there was a vacuum, a lack of information in realtime."
At the nine neighborhood councils and two district councils her West Seattle Blog covers each month, there are "big discussions about issues that are happening" that typically fly under the radar of the print dailies.
Seattle Weekly founder and Crosscut.com director David Brewster called Seattle an ideal place to pioneer new means of presenting news, since citizens tend to be "literate, civic, internet adaptive, and they understand what good journalism is and what fake journalism is."
Record suggested that a discussion about the future of the press ought to shift from a focus on the particular broadsheet format to the problem of how elderly, low-income, or disabled people will access vital community news and information.
"I suggest more discussion be put into that, rather than talking about how to prop up newspapers," she said.
Luthringer, Hearst's spokesperson, notes that as of Jan. 9, Hearst allotted 60 days to find a buyer for the P-I, and after that point, would decide whether to sell, eliminate print production and maintain a pared down online publication, or close down.