Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The P-I, going and coming

From my old office at the Seattle P-I you could see the reflection of our iconic P-I Globe overhead in the windows of a building across the courtyard. We used to joke about checking to make sure the world was still turning, figuring that’s how we’d find out if they decided to shut the paper down.

Now that the print version of the P-I really has closed, it’s meager comfort I suppose that the red neon “It’s in the P-I” still spins around the neon globe. Coverage of today’s final edition was at once mournful and celebratory, appropriately, with highlights being Carol Smith’s excellent obit of the paper and Lewis Kamb’s fine “tick-tock” accounting of the final day in the newsroom, along with Curt Milton’s terrific video capturing staffers’ final thoughts, and a couple of nice photo galleries at both the P-I and Seattle Times sites.

Last night Michelle and I went to the paper’s unofficial bar in lower Queen Anne, Buckley’s, for a fun, drunken wake that was primed by loose change in the newsroom’s “Flower Fund” and replenished for hours, incredibly, by people around the country who heard about the party on Facebook or Twitter and phoned donations directly to the bartender. A couple hundred dollars worth, I heard.

Newspapers may die, the economy may tank, but generosity abounds ... or at least appreciation of a good excuse to throw a few back.

There was an undercurrent of tension at Buckley’s last night as, I understand, there has been at the P-I these past couple of weeks. Not just the bad feelings about the paper’s demise, I mean, but mixed feelings about its future. The P-I is not going away completely. As widely reported -- even in the lead spot on the New York Times site last night -- a small, online-only operation will survive, led by Michelle. That’s good for us personally (it’s nice to have one income between us) and for the couple dozen people who will join her in the new venture. I also believe it’s good for journalism. As newspapers struggle to stay afloat and new news models pop up, all eyes will be on SeattlePI.com to see if it can figure out how to commit journalism and make money at the same time.

But there’s a palpable backwash of resentment too among those 150 or so P-I journalists not staying on board for the next phase. Some of the online staffers, already suffering survivor’s guilt, told me they’ve been guilt-tripped further by former colleagues for accepting less pay to remain with the new venture while others were passed over. “I got the full ‘Norma Rae’ treatment,” one said.

A friend of ours, political reporter Angela Galloway, was quoted this morning describing the feeling last week when online execs trolled through the newsroom asking to speak to certain staffers about joining the new crew.

"Waiting for them to come out and pull in their latest hire was like sitting through a game of Duck, Duck, Goose," Angela said.

I saw a photo online this morning that also suggested some doubts about an online-only model: Thomas Jefferson’s famous quote about newspapers, as painted on a P-I newsroom wall, with a little jab at the new model tacked on.

"Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter," Jefferson said. Added, on printer paper: "Or at least on online version with a greatly reduced staff and lots of links."

Isolated misgivings notwithstanding, I think most of the old P-I gang wishes the new venture well. Even some who are talking about starting a news site of their own -- which they initially viewed as competition for the P-I -- are now coming around to the smart (I think) realization that two (or more) sites could complement and help one another.

Meanwhile, it’s been kind of fun for me to watch Michelle become an online news rock star. She was all over the Internet yesterday and in publications from The Stranger to the New York Times. One Twitterer, relaying a link to her description of the new online P-I, referred to “Nicolosi’s St. Crispin’s Day speech.” As a fan of Henry V -- the play, not necessarily the king -- I thought that was cool.

I feel bad for all my friends at the P-I, and for the loss of the paper itself. I loved working there and made many enduring friendships. I’m forever indebted to the now former managing editor, David McCumber, who has become a good friend and who wrote this sweetly sentimental departing column, for taking a chance and hiring me and Michelle five years ago, getting us back to Seattle from Los Angeles. He made a tremendous difference in my life.

Given the scrappy and positive outlook of my colleagues at the paper I have every confidence they’ll emerge from this sad day with exciting new professional or personal ventures.

There’s a lot of good will in this town just waiting for them. Last night, after the Buckley’s fest, I dropped Michelle off at the P-I to pick up her car. We were accosted at the garage by a middle-aged couple who said they just stopped by -- this was 11 o’clock -- to pay their respects.

They left this little shrine to the P-I.

Here are a couple more links from today's coverage:

Seattle P-I through the years (Seattle Times photo gallery)
Vintage covers from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (Seattle Times photo gallery)
Under the Needle: P-I had a cast of characters, with storied histories, by Mike Lewis
Last day at the P-I (P-I gallery)

Photo credit: Spinning globe, top, by Flickr user Helpcraft
Franny and Gina from another era, 2005, in my P-I office.


Jason Bellamy said...

"St. Crispin’s Day speech" ... nice!

Michelle is a bigger star than you think. Last night, upon reading the missive about what the new P-I will be, I immediately forwarded the link to several higher-ups at the national association where I work. Over the past few years, we've being going through the process of figuring out who we really are and what we really do, and this has been a slow and painful shift for many in a place that for years (decades?) has tried to be everything to everyone, thus often failing miserably to be anything at all.

I was struck by the "experiment a lot, fail fast" mantra. My organization needs to do more of that (instead we're mired in too many long term projects that will never get off the ground). And so, in addition to highlighting that wisdom, I reminded my coworkers of another catchphrase I've been using a lot recently, which I picked up via Romenesko (I think), which I found via Michelle's shared items at M&M: "Do what you do best and link to the rest." It's logic that applies to more than just online news coverage.

Anyway, reactions to the e-mail were universal: everyone is fascinated by the new scaled-down, strategically-applied all-in approach. And Michelle has people I work with believing that she can pull it off, and that we can learn a lot just by the ways she's trying.

Best wishes to Michelle and The New P-I! Kick ass!

freda said...

thanks for the update Mark, congratulations Michelle, let me second Jason, "St. Crispin’s Day speech" ... nice! If anyone can do it, you can.

freda said...

ps. Fabulous photo of the moon behind the PI globe.

Curt said...

A fine piece here, Mark. I, too, think Michelle got it right: Try some things. If they fail, try others.

There is no one "fix" for what ails newspapers. There are, however, lots of new opportunities for journalists.


kateco said...

Thx for this post, Mr. Man.

Feeling very far away from the breach, but wearing my leek with pride.

Rita said...

A great tribute, Mark, to the life of the Seattle P.I. Such a sad farewell.

With 'swan songs' and 'fat ladies singing' everywhere these days, let's look to the success of the P.I. online news service.

Good luck, Michelle - 'break a leg'.

Auntie Babs said...

Thank you Mark and Michelle for the work that you do. I was just watching the video and only got as far as Ruth Teichroeb's saying that she wasn't going to be able to answer the phone and say, "yes, you didn't deserve to be treated that way", before tears came to my eyes. Ruth, among so many others at the P-I and at other fine papers, did give a voice to people who were needing just that.
I'm so pleased that Michelle is leading the charge to continue in a reduced manner.

Angela Galloway said...

Hi there, Mark. Good to see you at the party.

I was sorry to read the anonymous Norma Rae quote in your posting about the final day. I have to say I've seen zero evidence and heard no remarks reflecting any resentment from former staffers toward the online staff.

If anyone in the new venture is feeling that, perhaps they're mistaking grief over the paper's demise and awkwardness/frustration over the way the final days were handled by management.

Everyone I know has made a point to say we support our friends and colleagues who stayed on. And some of us, me included, truly hope the new venture succeeds - for Seattle's sake.

Mark said...

Thanks all for the comments. Nice leek joke, Kate.

Angie, I really appreciate you voicing support for the new venture and giving your colleagues the benefit of the doubt on statements that might have been misinterpreted. And I hope you didn't think I was including you in that group; I just loved your funny, perfectly apt quote in Lew's story. I know that there is some real resentment out there, but like you I think it's a minority and that most old P-I staffers wish the new P-I well.

As for "fail fast," you might say judging by some of the initial commentary around the web that SeattlePI.com set out to prove the point on the first day. But even the critics acknowledged that after a mixed-to-rough Tuesday the site was looking better the rest of the week.

My own take is that Michelle and her crew have their work cut out for them. Even with a good plan and good people -- both of which they have -- there's not much money and, I fear, not a lot of time to make a good first impression. They'll have to plan smart and work smart every day ... and then do a little better tomorrow.

Still I'm optimistic that like the old globe itself -- with rust spots showing if you get up real close -- the online P-I will keep plugging away and winning people over.