On March 17, 2009, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer publishes its final edition, bringing an end to a history that began 146 years earlier, on a hand-cranked wooden press in a frontier town of only a few hundred souls.
The Hearst Corporation, owner of the P-I since 1921, had announced on January 9 (a day quickly dubbed "Black Friday" in the newsroom) that it was putting the paper up for sale and would shut it down if a buyer could not be found within 60 days. Hearst said the paper had been losing money for years -- $14 million in 2008 – and the company could no longer afford to keep publishing it. "Regrettably, we have come to the end of the line," Hearst Chief Executive Frank A. Bennack Jr. and Steven R. Swartz, president of Hearst Newspapers, wrote in an emailed statement to the P-I (Richman and James, January 9, 2009).
Seattle’s Oldest Newspaper
The P-I traces its ancestry to Volume One, Number One of The Seattle Gazette, published on August 15, 1863, by James R. Watson, an itinerant printer most recently from Olympia. The paper changed ownership some 17 times before William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951) bought it, secretly, in April 1921. It outlasted roughly 20 competitors (name changes and spotty records make it difficult to track the exact number), from the weekly People’s Telegram, published briefly in 1864, to the daily Star, founded in 1899. The Star, once part of the E. W. Scripps chain, published its last edition on August 13, 1947, leaving the P-I and The Seattle Times as Seattle’s only daily newspapers. The P-I’s closure makes Seattle a one-newspaper town once again.
During its lifetime, the P-I occupied 11 different locations, not counting the temporary quarters set up in a vacant house and barn after the P-I’s building burned to the ground in Seattle's Great Fire of 1889. Despite the loss of its building, the P-I chronicled the fire and more than a century of other seminal events in Seattle’s history, from the Klondike Gold Rush of 1897 to the World Trade Organization riots in 1999. But its operating losses began to mount after 2000, reaching what Hearst said was an "unacceptable" level. The "cause of death," wrote P-I reporter Carol Smith, was "a fatal economic spiral compounded by dwindling subscription rates, an exodus of advertisers and an explosion of online information."
The end of the paper did not mean an end to what Oglesby called "the bloodline." The P-I would survive through its website, seattlepi.com, he said. "The thing that should not be missed here is that the P-I is not going away. The P-I is going online" (Richman and James, March 16, 2009). One day after printing its last paper, the P-I became the largest daily in the nation to experiment with a web-only format.
About 20 of the P-I’s roughly 170 employees were offered jobs at seattlepi.com. The others were left searching for work, in a shrinking economy, at a time when the world seems less and less interested in printed newspapers. Tensions sometimes mounted in the final days as P-I executives made the decisions about who would go and who would stay. "Waiting for them to come out and pull in their latest hire was like sitting through a game of Duck, Duck Goose," said political reporter Angela Galloway (Lewis Kamb, March 17, 2009, A-25).
Although anticipated for more than two months, the last day of the ink-on-paper P-I came abruptly. At 10 a.m. on March 16, publisher Roger Oglesby used a microphone to call the newsroom together. "Tonight, we’ll be putting the paper to bed for the last time," he said. A few people cried. Most were silent. News editor Candace Heckman pulled bottles of whiskey and bourbon from a bag. "I’d been saving these for a while," she said. She sent out an email inviting staffers to her desk, adding "bring your own glass" (Richman and James, March 17, 2009).
About 50 reporters, editors, and photographers from both the P-I and its longtime rival, The Seattle Times, gathered later that day in a small park near the P-I’s offices, for a memorial of sorts, organized by Times reporter Hal Bernton. He wanted to acknowledge the shared sadness in the brotherhood of print, when a newspaper rolls off a press for the last time -- "like when a firefighter dies and all the other firefighters come to the funeral" (Westneat, March 17, 2009).
The next day -- St. Patrick’s Day -- the P-I went out with a 20-page commemorative section that featured a full-color shot of its iconic globe on the front page, with the headline "You’ve meant the world to us." The press run, three times the normal subscription run of 117,600, quickly sold out.
Globe to Keep Spinning
The print edition is history, but the landmark P-I globe has been spared, at least for now. One of the Northwest’s most recognizable corporate symbols, the 18.5-ton, 30-foot neon globe has been lighting up the night skies with its rotating motto, "It’s in the P-I," for more than 60 years. Designed by a young University of Washington art student named Jakk Corsaw, it was built in 1948 for the P-I’s then-new building at 6th Avenue and Wall Street, near the Seattle Center. It was moved to its current waterfront location, at 101 Elliott Avenue W, in 1986.
The impending demise of the P-I had spurred speculation and concern about the fate of the much-loved globe. There were suggestions that it be moved to the Olympic Sculpture Park if Hearst didn’t want it anymore. Leonard Garfield, executive director of the Museum of History & Industry, said MOAHI "would love to have it," but added that he "had to swallow hard" when he learned that it would cost perhaps $1 million to move and repair the aging landmark (Garfield interview). (MOHAI already holds the neon P-I sign that the globe replaced.)
After Hearst made the decision to keep the P-I "brand" alive through the website, it "just made sense" to retain the globe, Oglesby said. Added Pat Doody, president of WongDoody, a top advertising agency with offices in Seattle and Los Angeles, "However valuable the Seattle P-I is as a brand, that logo is inextricably linked to it" (Lacitis, March 17, 2009).