AJR  The Beat
From AJR,   March 2003

The Outsiderís Story   

The Seattle Times hires Bill Richards, a freelance business reporter, to cover what may turn out to be the dissolution of the paper's joint operating agreement with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

By Kathryn S. Wenner
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at the Washington Post.     

As the Seattle Times considers whether to scrap its joint operating agreement with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Times editors hire a freelance reporter to cover the matter under an arrangement that protects him from editorial interference.

Bill Richards, 61, a Seattle-based business writer who contributes to the Wall Street Journal and Business 2.0 magazine and has worked for the Journal, Washington Post and Post-Intelligencer--but not the Times--signed a three-year contract that pays him a monthly stipend and provides an outside mediator.

"I think they have been both creative and...pretty gusty to go outside" the paper for a JOA reporter, Richards says.

David Boardman, assistant managing editor for investigations, business and sports, came up with the idea. "The executive and managing editors have agreed to have nothing to do with the coverage," he says, and don't see the stories before they are published. That will change in July, after Managing Editor Alex MacLeod retires and Boardman moves into that job. Boardman will continue to oversee Richards' reporting, but "we'll keep the process clean by not involving David in any JOA matters," says Executive Editor Michael R. Fancher.

If a dispute arises between Richards and his editors, either can turn to James M. Naughton, president of the Poynter Institute, to mediate. If Naughton sides with Richards but is unable to come to an agreement with Times editors, Richards can end the arrangement, receive full payment for the three years and talk publicly about what happened.

"That just came out of my head," Boardman says. He and MacLeod "felt like we needed something that would give Bill a recourse if he felt that we were somehow censoring him. I felt we needed something that would send a really strong message to the public."

The Times says it has endured losses the last three years, allowing it, under a clause in the JOA, nine months to decide whether to begin proceedings to dissolve the agreement. It could seek the consent of the Hearst Corp., which owns the Post-Intelligencer, to close one of the papers--presumably the P-I, whose circulation, at 158,000, has dropped markedly since the 224,000-circulation Times went to morning publication in 1999. Under the 20-year-old JOA, the Times handles all non-editorial operations and gets 60 percent of profits, with the other 40 going to the P-I.

Hearst has said it doesn't think there is a basis for terminating the JOA and that it intends to continue publishing its Seattle paper.

"Metro markets now simply won't support two metro newspapers," says Times Publisher Frank A. Blethen, whose family owns the paper. "To artificially keep one alive, it increasingly becomes a drag.... My starting point always is, what is the best chance the Blethen family has to perpetuate family ownership and our commitment to journalism?"

As of mid-February, Richards had written only two stories. "It's kind of premature to start talking about this stuff before anything happens," he says. "If nothing happens, it's going to be a long three years."