Monday, January 3, 2011

Eighteen Months Later: What's happened to Seattle P-I journalists

Six months after Hearst shut down the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, I surveyed my former colleagues to find out how they were faring. Most were still looking for work, reeling from the shock of losing their jobs in the depths of the Great Recession and grieving the death of the P-I in March 2009.

I recently repeated my survey to find out what difference a year has made. There's good news and bad news. More are working, more have found their way back to journalism. But almost 60 percent of those who are employed say they're earning less than at the P-I.

We are moving on, some faster than others. But many still wonder: How do you measure what's missing when stories go untold? Or when those with power and money operate with less scrutiny? Or when reporters who once filed public disclosure requests and uncovered corruption now earn a living writing press releases?

Eighty-two of the 140 former P-I staff who lost their jobs responded to my survey in November/December. Here's what I found:
  • Half have new fulltime jobs working for employers, as compared to less than one-third of those who responded a year ago. Just over 50 percent are working as journalists and the rest are in corporate or nonprofit communications, business etc.

  • Almost 25 percent (19 people) have started their own fulltime or part-time ventures (InvestigateWest, PostGlobe, commercial photography, freelance writing/editing/graphics)

  • Five work part-time for employers and several of them also freelance

  • Nine are in school (web design, MFA, business, art)

  • Twenty percent (17 people) are on unemployment benefits, most nearing the end of their eligibility. Several are also students, freelance etc.

  • One is a fulltime parent and two retired

(Note: The numbers don't total 82 because some people are in more than one category. The statistics do not include the 18 or so newspaper staff who now work at

Overall Trends?

Back on deadline: Twice as many are working as fulltime journalists now as compared to a year ago -- up from 15 percent to 30 percent. Most (23) are working for employers (newspapers, online news, magazines, broadcast) while the rest freelance or work for start-ups such as InvestigateWest. At least 10 people moved away from Seattle to stay in journalism, including one who now lives apart from his family.

"There's no longer panic or a feeling of desperation in not having a job, but it's hardly how I envisioned my life -- 3,000 miles away from my family, away from the P-I, away from Seattle...But I've been a survivor, ready to do what I have to do." (Dan Raley, former P-I sports journalist, now editor at the Atlanta Journal Constitution)

"Life has been a roller coaster. After spending more than a year freelancing and on unemployment, I'm working again in media -- new media, social media. It's interesting to learn new skills and be inside the revolution. But I remain saddened and concerned about what the demise of the P-I and so many other newspapers means for journalism. I'm not sure the public fully appreciates what's been lost and what has yet to replace it." (Tom Paulson, former P-I science reporter, now global health blogger at KPLU)

Longer hours, less pay for journalists: Two-thirds of those working as journalists said they were earning less than at the P-I. Almost half of them said they were earning more than 25 percent less. Despite lower wages, almost 40 percent said their job satisfaction was about the same as the P-I and 25 percent said they were happier. The rest said it was worse.

"There are still days when I long for the security of the P-I, and God knows I had a hell of a lot of fun doing that job. What I'm doing now is even more challenging, and yet also more fun. But also scarier in a will-I-have-enough-to-retire-some-day department." (Robert McClure, former P-I environmental reporter, now chief environmental correspondent at InvestigateWest)

"I'm glad to say that I have been able to pay the bills doing what I love best -- writing and editing." (Athima Chansanchai, former P-I features writer, now runs Tima Media)

"I hate to see our region with so few watchdogs on patrol. I'm glad I can still write for a living, and in my chosen specialty, but if I didn't have a partner with health insurance and a reliable salary, there's no way I could keep going on as a freelancer." (Rebekah Denn, former P-I food writer, now freelancer)

Better pay, less satisfaction for others: Half of those working outside of journalism reported lower job satisfaction than at the P-I -- even though almost 60 percent are better paid. One-third are happier in their new gigs, while the rest feel about the same.

"I know I shouldn't complain. I've landed an interesting job that doesn't pay that much less than the P-I and I see so many others struggling. But I miss my true love, journalism. And life feels less rich than before." (former P-I journalist working in communications)

Long-term unemployment: Twenty percent are still relying on unemployment benefits to make ends meet, and are nearing the end of their eligibility. Most who haven't found work are more than 50 years old. They're struggling to pay for health insurance, hang onto their homes and cope with the psychological and financial toll of economic hard times.

"I will soon run out of all benefits and am not looking forward to foreclosure, or living in my van...Like most -- or is it all?-- the over-50 women at the P-I, I am still unemployed despite applying for several jobs for which I would be ideal." (Marsha Milroy, former P-I library researcher)

"I guess I feel "poorer" than I've ever felt in my life." (Grant Haller, former P-I photographer)

New Horizons: For a few, the turmoil of job loss turned into an opportunity to pursue other dreams, from starting a business to going back to school for a teaching degree or MFA. Almost 20 percent said they'd attended school at some point since the P-I closed.

"The more time that goes by, the more removed I feel from my career as a journalist...I knew I wanted to make a difference in some other way, and am happy to have that opportunity at World Vision. Instead of writing newspaper stories about social issues, I am helping to directly address them, specifically as they pertain to children in need. And that's a wonderful feeling." (John Iwasaki, former P-I news reporter, now doing nonprofit communications)

Gone but not forgotten: Most still miss the collegiality of the newsroom, the special mix of people who made the P-I a great place to work, and being part of a team doing journalism that mattered.

"I miss the people, but I miss the mission more: to give voice to the voiceless, to hold the powerful accountable, and to defy gravity while doing it." (Kristen Young, former P-I news reporter, now MFA student)

"My new job is great, and I'm very grateful to have it, but there are times when I miss the crazy atmosphere of the P-I, and the funny, smart, talented, sassy, aggravating, insane people I worked with. As I tell people: It was a helluva ride!" (Curt Milton, former P-I web producer, now doing communications)

"The P-I was an extraordinary place to work. And Hearst threw away a lot. Let's not pretend that they tried to keep anything substantive, beyond an experiment in how a veneer of professional journalism could be used to create a profit center built around clicks, photo galleries of models and animals, and vanity blogs for the would-be local celebs. In contrast, it was a newspaper where people weren't afraid to care about the community, report fearlessly and comment forcefully." (former P-I journalist)

"There was something special about life under the globe. I miss it. I suspect I always will." (John Levesque, former P-I columnist/editor, now managing editor, Seattle magazine)

(Photo: by M.V. Jantzen)


  1. Ruth:
    Good work. A tragedy continues. Marsha's and Grant's stories are just examples. I sorrow for all and I wonder about the individuals for it is the individual who counts. Do you have a list of responders?
    Gil Bailey
    Port Townsend

  2. Stopped at Louisa's at Eastlake just yesterday for a coffee and commented to my partner (also an unemployed journalist) how much I miss seeing the P-I in the newsbox next to The Times.
    Jacqui Banaszynski
    Formerly Seattle Times

  3. Hearst did a masterful job handling the PR side of laying off nearly all of its P-I staff and retaining the rest at less pay and benefits. Hearst shifting the focus to the P-I's great history and away from the damage it was doing to people's careers and lives.

    Not sure what to call today's P-I -- it's an aggregator with a skeletal and lots and lots of starlets to view so the click count is high. Today's P-I is almost identical to the web products of other harvest-mode entities of the Hearst empire.

    So what Seattle has with the P-I is a creature of marginal value, hardly providing much original content. With all the vast resources of the Hearst Corporation, it's all just a shame that the online only entity, stripped of the cost of trucks, paper and delivery trucks, hardly bothers to do much.

  4. The passage of time still does not change the fact that the P-I's former staffers (and a very few civilians, like me) are the only ones who cared when the print edition closed. I remain gobsmacked at how many times people asked me, "what's the difference (between the Times and the P-I)?" I read, I think on The Stranger's Web site, of someone asking what that big globe on top of the building near the waterfront is. I wonder how many people call the Web site "Seattle-Pie dot com."

    But on more than one occasion, P-I business columnist Bill Virgin took the newspaper business to task for doing everything possible to alienate potential readers, especially young people. Dude was right on target.

    I wonder if I'm the only one who remembers Watergate. Especially the part where the Right engaged in a generation-long plan to turn Americans against the news media. Mission Accomplished, folks...

  5. One of my first jobs was as a reporter with the P-I. I was a new j-school graduate from the Univ of Oregon, so I have many fond memories of nearly a year of interning under the globe on the Bay. Thank you for caring and doing such a great job following these folks and telling their stories. Best to you!

  6. I worry about a world that will not have a printed press to keep a watch on the local, regional and national politics of our nation. Soundbites on television are not going to cover a story with as much depth as an article or in an investigative series of articles. For all the speed of the internet and television, there are times when there is no electricity or no "signal". How will we be alerted to breaking news? Word of mouth? Over the back fence? Blackberry? How accurate will that information be traveling through multiple sources before it comes to you?

  7. sucks about the PI. I always thought it was a better paper than the Times. I still check the new PI website before the Times site for local news.

  8. I'm actually a former Seattle Times employee, disrupted when they sold their Maine properties. I'm in a non-profit/communications role but at a really interesting place doing work that in many ways was similar to what I did before. And, I don't work weekends, have better benefits and a much brighter future. Much. All I'd say to newspaper folks is not to hold on so tight. Was it special? Yes. Is it now? Not so much, from what I'm reading. Is there life after print -- if YOU are willing to change and adapt? Yes, a very good life.

  9. Your readers miss you too, and we wonder how you are doing. It is shameful that Seattle is a one-newspasper town. Just finished Bob Greene's book about the decline and fall of the American newspaper "LATE EDITION, a Love Story". He describe the situation with the papers, but I cannot describe how I yearn for the crackle of the PI's sheets in the morning and its staff of talented journalists. Good luck to us all!

  10. I'm wondering if you're putting the non-profit communications people in the right category. As anonymous (at JANUARY 4, 2011 5:40 PM) said:

    "t at a really interesting place doing work that in many ways was similar to what I did before."

    Both Jennifer Langston and Lisa Stiffler are the lead staff at the Sightline Institute on their Daily Score blog:

    While Sightline is a non-profit organization, what Lisa and Jennifer are doing now is practically the same thing they did at the PI, reporting and writing about environmental issues for a local audience.

  11. I'm convinced that there's little security in media/communications jobs. Recent hard times have shown that they'll always be the first on the chopping block. And many of those jobs, as evidenced by my own job search the last few months, involve little in the way of traditional journalism values — a lot of jobs with "editor" or "writer" in the title wants "aggregators" of "content" targeted toward corporate clients, and require a lot of heavy flash/HTML/coding/video skills. I understand that's the reality, and yet, for anybody who hails from a shoe-leather, truth-to-power background, it's a pretty sad damn reality.

    All that, and really ... there aren't any jobs.

    After being laid off in January as the news editor of the Kitsap Sun in Bremerton, I'm staying open to working for someone else but have been sinking most of my energy into entrepreneurial efforts. Hard times have shown me that nobody but me will really look after me. I'm off to a slow start as a freelance editor/proofer of book manuscripts, but the volume of work coming my way is growing.

    I'm enjoying myself, and enjoying having the coffee shops up and down Puget Sound as my office. But I am happy for those — and this blog shows there are more than I would have guessed — who have managed to find a fresh toehold in the truth-to-power industry.

    Jim Thomsen

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