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Originally published March 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 17, 2009 at 12:36 AM

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P-I's closure offers "cautious relief" for Seattle Times, but no solution

While economic hardship has claimed the printed version of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Times also is fighting for its life.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Seattle is now a one-newspaper town. Will it become a no-newspaper town?

While economic hardship has claimed the printed version of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Times also is fighting for its life.

"This quarter will probably be the all-time bad one in my career/lifetime. As will the two- to three-year [economic downturn] we are in," Seattle Times Publisher and CEO Frank Blethen wrote last week in an e-mail to family members and senior managers.

Blethen says he and his family, who have owned and published the paper continuously since 1896, have no intention of giving up now. But he can't guarantee survival.

Blethen on Monday would not discuss how The Times is going to respond to the closure of the printed P-I or the efforts to boost the P-I online operation.

But several analysts predicted the demise of the print version probably will help The Times in the long run. That's because The Seattle Times Co. no longer has to shoulder the cost of printing, advertising, marketing and distributing the P-I, with which it has been yoked in a Joint Operating Agreement since 1983. It also won't have to share revenue with the Hearst Corp., which owns the P-I.

Over the shorter term, however, the elimination of a print P-I may add some financial burden on The Seattle Times Co. because ad revenue — largely based on the combined circulation of both papers — is likely to decline.

In a statement to subscribers and advertisers Monday, The Seattle Times Co. said it will convert all P-I subscriptions to Times subscriptions. The company also will be adding some content now in the P-I, such as the "Dilbert" comic strip and Ciscoe Morris' gardening column.

Eventually, Times Executive Editor David Boardman said, the newspaper hopes to hire some of the newsroom talent at the P-I. He said that is unaffordable now for The Times, where the news staff has been reduced by more than 40 percent since 2003.

"We simply can't afford to hire any of their people. We have had to cut so many of our own," Boardman said. "But we have been having conversations with some of their best people, and I'm hopeful at some point they can come join us."

Saddled with declining revenue across the newspaper industry and faced with debt payments, The Seattle Times Co. is addressing its financial problems by trying to sell property and seeking a range of economic concessions from its staff. The cutbacks are under negotiation with unions representing many employees. Management and nonunion employees have been subject to similar cuts.

The newspaper, like others in the industry, also is struggling to find the right online mix. With the P-I going online only and smaller operations popping up all the time, the challenge may now become more complex.

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Boardman expressed no pleasure in the closure of the P-I — but he said he did feel some "cautious relief."

"It doesn't save us in these perilous times," he said, "but at least it gives us a fighting chance. I knew this had to happen in order to preserve any daily newspaper in Seattle."

There are bright spots.

Readership of the daily and Sunday Seattle Times is growing slightly over the past three years, according to Scarborough Research. And visits to seattletimes.com by readers in the core metropolitan area in King and Snohomish counties and Seattle also grew.

Paid daily circulation has declined to 198,741 in the six-month period ending Sept. 30, 2008. But nearly all those declines were rooted in cutbacks in circulation made in 2007 to reduce expenses, according to Alan Fisco, vice president of circulation and marketing at The Times.

Michael Fancher, former executive editor of The Times, sees the survival of newspaper journalism in Seattle as hanging in the balance. "If The Times is going to survive, it probably needs the support of as many P-I readers as possible," Fancher said. "... I hope the P-I readers will give The Times the chance to win their support."

Seattle Times business reporter Eric Pryne contributed to this story. Lynda V. Mapes: lmapes@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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