Seattle's Oldest Newspaper Remembers Their Irish Wake

When journalists see their profession crumbling before them, left without jobs and stripped of what they love to do, it is surely disheartening and deflating -- a feeling of helplessness.
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Usually St Patrick's Day is a day of celebration: whether it's wearing different shades of green, nibbling on soda bread, taking in a parade, tipping back a few cold ones, reciting Irish proverbs or belting out popular Irish songs with the sounds of bagpipes and drums filling the air.

But for employees of the Seattle-Post Intelligencer, St Patrick's Day, 2009 was a day for doing only one thing; crying in their beer and wondering what the future holds as Seattle's oldest newspaper rolled off the presses for the final time.

We are rapidly approaching the one-year anniversary when 150 newsroom employees were told the Seattle Post Intelligencer would cease publishing as a print edition, bringing to a screeching halt its 146-year tradition and leaving Seattle, like so many other major cities, a one newspaper town.

The Hearst newspaper which had accumulated $14 million in red ink the previous year, decided to slice their staff down to 20 newsroom employees (another 20 to sell advertising) and remain an Internet edition only.

Last year, other print editions met a similar fate: the Rocky Mountain News, the Baltimore Examiner, the Washington Blade, the Detroit Daily Press, the Tucson Citizen all folded; and similar to the Post-Intelligencer, the Christian Science Monitor shed its print edition on March 27th of last year, leaving only an online edition with updates posted throughout the day.

When journalists see their profession crumbling before them, left without jobs and stripped of what they love to do (some without much of a warning)--it can only be disheartening and deflating with a feeling of helplessness.

Kristen Millares Young, a business and metro reporter at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, devastated as she was to learn she was without a job on March 16, 2009, refused to give up on her passion for reporting and exposing corruption and government fraud. So Young decided to team up with other Seattle staffers to form Investigate West, a non-profit organization dedicated to investigative journalism covering the Pacific Northwest and the West.

In addition to Young, I.W. has four other former Post-Intelligencer staffers on board: Rita Hibbard serves as executive director and editor. Hibbard was assistant managing editor for news and led the investigative team at the Post-Intelligencer; Daniel Lathrop, a former member of the P.I.'s investigative projects team is I.W.'s chief digital strategist and investigative reporter; Robert McClure, a Pulitzer-Prize finalist, who exposed a glaring loophole in the Endangered Species Act, is I.W's chief environmental correspondent; and Carol Smith, who covered science and medicine for the P-I, now reports on health and social justice for I.W. Two news photographers, Paul Joseph Brown and Mike Kane are additionally part of I.W's news team.

Investigate West operates on the same non-profit model as National Public Radio, which receives funding from pledge drives and donations from other journalism organizations. I.W, for example, was recently the beneficiary of a $100,000 grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

On her way to an assignment, Young, who previously worked for TIME Magazine, the Buenos Aires Herald and The Miami Herald before landing at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, called me on my cell to chat about I.W., her commitment to aggressive journalism and the sorry state of the newspaper industry.

Young encourages any reporter, editor, or photographer, who has been laid-off, not to lose heart; as long as the passion is still there, and you love what you were reporting on, whether it was food, politics, jazz music--and you're willing to get along with little pay (at least for a while)--there's no reason why your love for journalism should wither away. But Young stresses that unless you're passionate about your subject--burn-out will likely set in--because flying solo or collaborating with others requires a committement to make it work; meaning, long hours with most independent sites taking as long as a year or even two years before getting noticed or building an established audience.

I.W, incorporated as a nonprofit 501(c) (3) produces journalism for the public trust, by conducting investigative projects and then selling content to other news outlets, such as MSNBC, the Spokesman Review, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and KUOW, a founding member of NPR; and an affiliate of Public Radio International (PRI).

Whether this new non-profit investigative journalism model will catch on is still an open question, but it has certainly earned the respect of seasoned professionals, such as Walt Bogdanich, assistant editor for the New York Times Investigations Desk, and adjunct professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. `` I'm a big supporter of the nonprofit model. It's too early to tell how successful that approach will be over time, but right now it shows great promise'' the three-time Pulitzer Prize winner wrote in an email. The encouraging news for investigative journalism sites like I.W. according to Bogdanich is that ``as these groups develop track records, the established media will be more inclined to consider their offerings.''

Paul Steiger, editor-in-chief, president and chief executive of ProPublica. an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, and whose work has been featured in The New York Times, USA Today, the Denver Post, among other news publications, while encouraged by the investigative journalism undertaken by non-profits, observes that it's a little more difficult for someone age 45-50 whose been laid-off to match what they were doing as far as compensation goes and the reporting tools they were accustomed to using at their former newspapers.

``Younger journalists'', Steiger points out, ``don't need as much income, they don't have kids, they don't have mortgages to worry about, so they can experiment and work for modest wages at startups.''

Despite the limited field, Steiger, a former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, is mightily impressed with a number non-profit investigative ventures, namely: The Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Investigative Reporting, California Watch, and the Huffington Post Investigative Fund based in Washington D.C.

Doug Clifton, former executive editor of The Miami Herald and most recently, editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland before retiring in 2007, is also encouraged by the non-profit journalism model, but cautions it only fills part of a need. `` Those sources'' Clifton wrote in an email, ``don't seem able to replace the dollars that for-profit enterprises used to apply to investigative journalism. The non-profit groups may be able to partially fill a void on a temporary basis but the long-run answer is a new model for the traditional media. ''

Clifton is now involved with The Vermont Journalism Trust, whose goal is to produce the kind of hard-hitting journalism that for profit news organizations are finding too costly to produce amid staff reductions and shrinking budgets.

With newspapers folding, and other newsroom employees falling like dominoes as more and more newspapers downsize through buyouts and layoffs, what worries Young the most is ``that their won't be enough people [reporters] left in regional markets to connect the dots'' when a major investigative project or aggressive reporting is sorely needed.

Even if investigative reporting isn't your area of expertise, Young shared with me examples of former P-I colleagues of hers who are now doing exactly what they love to do in their respective fields, such as Gene Stout, the former Post-Intelligencer music critic who has started his own site , as have Rebecca Denn, former writer and restaurant critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer with ``Eat All About It'' , and for breaking news, The Seattle Post Globe was launched by former P-I. reporters, photographers, and copy editors, including Sally Deneen who contributes environment stories, Kathy George, a public interest lawyer and former government and politics editor at the Intelligencer, Grant Haller, a photographer who worked at the Intelligencer for 35 years, and John Hickey who spent the better part of two decades covering West Coast baseball.

For those laid-off, downsized and left for dead, let's just hope that those reporters, writers, bloggers, photographers, page designers -- whatever their medium may be -- will one day be properly compensated for staying the course and pursuing their passion.

-Bill Lucey

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