The Seattle Times begins morning publication on March 6, 2000, launching a newspaper war with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

  • By Walt Crowley
  • Posted 5/08/2000
  • Essay 2169
On March 6, 2000, after serving as the Puget Sound region's primary evening newspaper for more than a century, The Seattle Times shifts publication to mornings. The move to a morning edition puts it in direct competition with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the city's long-time morning newspaper and the Times' partner in a joint operating agreement since 1983.

End of an Era

The decision by the Times to abandon evenings ended more than a century of tradition. The Times began publication in 1887 as the Evening Times. In 1896, the paper was purchased by Alden J. Blethen (1845-1915), who, by the time of his death in 1915, had built it into the city's dominant daily. (His heirs remain majority owners of the paper in association with Knight-Ridder.)

Competition stiffened in 1921 when William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) purchased the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, founded in 1881 with the merger of two older newspapers, and better known as just the P-I. During the early twentieth century, Seattle also supported two other dailies, the Scripps-Howard-owned Star, and the labor-owned Union Record.

Joined at the Hip?

In 1983, the Times and P-I signed a "joint operating agreement," or JOA, as permitted under federal law intended to preserve newspaper competition. Under the JOA, the Times took over all responsibility for printing, advertising, and circulation for both papers, while the P-I retained independent reporting and editorial staff and was guaranteed 32 percent of joint earnings.

The JOA was amended in January 1999 to permit the Times to publish in the morning. In exchange, the P-I's share of joint earnings rose to 40 percent and it gained control of its own Website. The revised agreement also guaranteed each paper a continuing share of revenue if it chose to cease publication after three years.

The Times promptly announced that it would begin publishing a morning edition in early 2000 under the leadership of publisher Frank Blethen and executive editor Michael Fancher. In bracing for a good old fashioned newspaper war, the Hearst Corporation promoted P-I publisher J.D. Alexander to its executive echelon, brought in Roger Oglesby as the new local publisher, and elevated managing editor Kenneth Bunting to executive editor. Of potential national significance, both newspapers are likely to rely heavily on their Websites to provide readers with updates on major stories between editions.

Wake Up Calls

The Times' decision to shift to mornings was predicated on several factors. First, for decades morning newspapers have tended to dominate metropolitan markets, although the Times itself was a notable exception to this rule. Immediately prior to the publication change, the evening Times led the morning P-I in Monday-Friday circulation 219,698 to 191,169. The combined Times/P-I Sunday edition, which includes only three pages of P-I editorial content with the Hearst comics and Parade magazine, sold 500,076 copies in latest reports.

The Times may have been emboldened by the success of its long-standing Saturday morning edition, which bested the P-I (in latest figures) 214,236 to 170,876. Notwithstanding such victories, its paid circulation had not kept pace with metropolitan Seattle's burgeoning population. Marketing research showed that younger families and workers preferred to read newspapers in the morning, representing a missed demographic opportunity for the Times. As a morning paper, the P-I also enjoyed a significant "readership" edge over the Times because of its daylong availability.

Finally, mounting regional traffic congestion posed expensive logistical problems in shipping and distributing papers during both morning and afternoon rush hours. Although printing two newspapers on the same news cycle created new costs and challenges, Times' Publisher Frank Blethen concluded that the move was key to his paper's survival. Blethen commented, "We could slowly die on the vine or pay through the nose to get into the morning field."

Sources: The Seattle Times, March 5, 2000; Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 6, 2000; Sharon A. Boswell and Lorraine McConaghy, Raise Hell and Sell Newspapers: Alden J. Blethen & The Seattle Times (Pullman: WSU Press, 1996); Roger Sale, Seattle Past to Present  (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1976); James R. Warren, King County and Its Emerald City, Seattle (Seattle: American Historical Press, 1997).

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