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 AJR  The Beat

From AJR,   March 1999  issue

Mano a Mano in Seattle   

A head-to-head battle with the Post-Intelligencer looms.


By Carol Guensburg
Carol Guensburg (carol.guensburg@verizon.net) is senior editor for the Journalism Center on Children & Families, a University of Maryland professional program - and a nonprofit. It receives primary support from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Guensburg spent 14 years as an editor and reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel after working for three other papers.     


Seattle's two daily newspapers are girding for a battle over the breakfast table. With the afternoon Seattle Times ' switch to morning delivery sometime in the next two years, the Post-Intelligencer will face a head-on challenge.
``You're going to see the kind of news competition you rarely see anymore," H. Mason Sizemore , president and chief operating officer of the Times, gleefully predicts.
``It's going to be a very exciting time for newspapering in Seattle," echoes J.D. Alexander , publisher and editor of the Post-Intelligencer.
The Times, which as a circulation lead of about 30,000, and the P-I announced the new arrangement February 2, after amending the joint operating agreement that has bound the papers since 1983. The revised deal allows the Hearst-owned P-I a greater percentage of profits--40 percent, up from 32 percent--and a more competitive online presence in exchange for the Times' right to enter the morning cycle. The Times is owned 51 percent by the descendants of Alden Blethen , who purchased the paper in 1896; Knight Ridder has a 49 percent share.
The announcement has energized the Times' newsroom, Sizemore says. ``I've never seen a group as exuberant. ... They relish the opportunity to go head to head with the P-I."
At the Post- Intelligencer, whose 150 or so editorial staffers are outgunned 2-to-1, the response has been more guarded. ``The initial reaction was surprise. Nobody saw it coming," says Rob Taylor , a 10-year veteran who reports on the environment. ``The second reaction was largely a feeling of betrayal or distrust, because the concern around here has always been that the Hearst Corp. has in the past not been willing to match the Times' spending on staff and news product."
But Publisher Alexander says Hearst plans to invest at least an additional $1 million to help the P-I compete with its new morning challenger. He anticipates the paper ``will add substantially" to staffing levels, and ``we'll open the paper for big take-outs and investigative work, photos, events -- whatever the case may be. `` The paper already flexes its muscle in breaking news, where it's regarded as the market leader. Alexander says it also dominates in sports, regional economics, the Pacific Rim and arts coverage.
Sizemore acknowledges that the change will necessitate a change in newsroom culture. The Times, which he calls ``the last dominant afternoon metro newspaper in a competitive market," ceded some breaking news because of its p.m. cycle. It has distinguished itself through investigative journalism, analyses, zoned suburban coverage and award-winning features sections.
Sizemore says several factors pushed the Times toward morning delivery: reader preference, daytime traffic congestion, and the prospect of having to buy expensive new presses to serve readers to the south.
Despite an increase in the Puget Sound's population, circulation has been stagnant at both papers. The Times' daily circulation is 229,713, the P-I's 196,271. The Times also puts out a Sunday paper, which has a circulation of 505,808. The Times' shift to morning and the heightened journalistic competition `` will create more readers in the Seattle market," says David M. Cole , whose fortnightly News Inc. covers the business of newspapers.
He and Alexander dismiss the notion that the Post-Intelligencer will be the victim in the looming circulation war. ``If either The Times Co. or Hearst felt the paper was going to go under, they would not have gone to the trouble of writing an agreement that goes out" to 2083, Cole says. ``This is an acknowledgement both by the Hearst Corp. and the Blethen Family that the P-I is going to be a viable force."