Looking forward to the future of journalism

Why couldn’t watchdog journalism save Seattle newspaper?


The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the sister-paper of the Hearst-owned San Antonio Express-News, where I work, is going up for sale after hemorrhaging money for years:

The Seattle P-I is being put up for sale, and if after 60 days it has not sold, it will either be turned into a Web-only publication or discontinued entirely.

“One thing is clear: at the end of the sale process, we do not see ourselves publishing in print,” said Steven Swartz, president of the Hearst Corp.’s newspaper division. …

P-I employees were silent as they listened to the announcement, which lasted about 10 minutes. Some of them shed tears. Others held up cell phones or voice recorders in press-conference fashion.

Editorial Cartoonist David Horsey was nearly speechless.

“This is awful, awful, awful,” he said afterward. “I was just standing there looking around at all these people I love to work with. I don’t want this to happen to me or them.”

He said that he’s been watching the news about the newspaper troubles nationwide, but that doesn’t make it any easier to understand the business reasons behind the decision.

“You realize you’re part of a huge implosion of the newspaper industry,” he said.

Both the P-I and the Seattle Times have produced outstanding watchdog journalism, which makes this news especially disheartening. Believe it or not, there are those of us in the newspaper industry who believe we need to stay away from schlocky stories about Britney Spears, and try to give readers gripping narratives and compelling investigative pieces that truly make a difference.

The P-I publishes lots of enterprising journalism — and they do it well. Last month, Andrew Schneider of the P-I wrote an interesting series of investigative stories about a topic I’ve never heard of: “Honey Laundering.”

A far cry from the innocent image of Winnie the Pooh with a paw stuck in the honey pot, the international honey trade has become increasingly rife with crime and intrigue.

In the U.S., where bee colonies are dying off and demand for imported honey is soaring, traders of the thick amber liquid are resorting to elaborate schemes to dodge tariffs and health safeguards in order to dump cheap honey on the market, a five-month Seattle P-I investigation has found.

The business is plagued by foreign hucksters and shady importers who rip off conscientious U.S. packers with honey diluted with sugar water or corn syrup — or worse, tainted with pesticides or antibiotics.

These are the kinds of interesting, public-service stories that we risk losing when a newspaper dies. But the sale of the P-I also raises the question whether our salvation lies in watchdog journalism. It apparently couldn’t save the P-I.

Related: How to contact an investigative reporter

Or maybe the P-I’s strong history of investigative journalism helped staunch the bleeding and keep the paper alive. I don’t know.

It’s possible the P-I will reduce its staff and migrate all its content to the Web. Maybe in an Internet-savvy city like Seattle, that operation will prosper. Maybe in a few months the P-I will reinvent itself and show other newspapers that going digital is possible.

But those are a lot of maybes. Speaking as an avid newspaper reader who believes journalism, when it’s done right, is a public service, this is a sad day.