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Originally published December 16, 2009 at 10:53 AM | Page modified March 17, 2009 at 5:28 PM

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The last deadline: Seattle's oldest newspaper goes to press for the final time

The P-I, a civic institution that traces its roots to the Civil War, published its last print edition this morning, dropping Seattle from the dwindling ranks of two-newspaper towns.

Seattle Times business reporter

Seattle P-I:
Farewell to the P-I

Inside the pressroom as the final edition is printed

Reactions from P-I staff, publisher

Managing Editor David McCumber, Publisher Roger Oglesby, and staff comment on Hearst's announcement.

Oglesby:
"Tonight, we'll be putting the paper to bed for the last time."

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The Seattle Post-Intelligencer today goes where no newspaper its size has gone before: entirely online.

The P-I, a civic institution that traces its roots to the Civil War, published its last print edition this morning, dropping Seattle from the dwindling ranks of two-newspaper towns.

Its owner, The Hearst Corp., said the P-I's legacy would survive on a revamped seattlepi.com Web site, but one produced with a small fraction of the reporting staff and which relies on content from other sources. Executives expressed hope it eventually will accomplish something the print P-I hadn't done since the 1990s: make money.

Media-industry analysts labeled the move a bold experiment, and said it could go either way. It could succeed with this new direction, but it faces the challenge of maintaining a Web readership without the support of a print product.

Hearst itself may be the fledgling venture's biggest asset, many agreed.

The company is a media giant with many arms — newspapers, television, radio, magazines, cable. It has been an industry leader in exploring the Internet's potential, investing in startups and establishing business partnerships with Yahoo and others.

Hearst now plans to use those connections to help seattlepi.com fly. "They're bringing the full force of their national relationships and content to bear on Seattle," said Ken Doctor, an analyst with the media-research firm Outsell.

What's more, privately held Hearst has deep pockets. "They could sustain this experiment indefinitely," Doctor said. "If it makes a million or loses a million, that's nothing to a company like Hearst."

The company should know within a year whether the transformed seattlepi.com is on the right track, said Lincoln Millstein, Hearst Newspapers' senior vice president for digital media.

Hearst pulled the plug on the print P-I in a Monday announcement. Publisher Roger Oglesby told a silent newsroom at 10 a.m. that today's edition would be the paper's last.

The death sentence was all but pronounced Jan. 9 when Hearst put the paper up for sale, saying the P-I had lost $14 million in 2008 and stood to lose even more this year. The company said it would stop publishing in print unless a buyer emerged in 60 days, an extreme longshot.

Many of the P-I's 167 staffers, almost all in the newsroom, started cleaning out their desks last week after the deadline passed. Only 20 or 25 journalists will have jobs with seattlepi.com, Hearst said.

The P-I is Seattle's oldest newspaper. "It's a sad day for our democracy and the people of Seattle," said former state Supreme Court Justice Phil Talmadge, who co-chaired a group called Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town.

Newspapers across the country, hit hard by the recession and competition from the Internet, are downsizing, filing for bankruptcy protection or shutting down entirely. Denver's Rocky Mountain News stopped publishing last month.

Hearst's announcement Monday also apparently marked the end of the federally sanctioned Joint Operating Agreement (JOA) that has linked the P-I with the larger Seattle Times since 1983. Under the contract, the two papers maintained separate news operations, while The Times handled most business functions for both — including the P-I's online operations.

In return, The Times received a larger share of what remained after it was compensated for the combined non-news expenses.

Hearst spokesman Paul Luthringer said the JOA will terminate today, and Times spokeswoman Jill Mackie said she didn't disagree with that statement. Details of the termination remained unclear, however — the JOA doesn't automatically end when one paper shuts down.

But Mackie said The Times wouldn't try to use the JOA to block Hearst's new moves online.

JOAs are partial exemptions from antitrust laws, and operate under the aegis of the Justice Department. A spokeswoman said Monday that the department had concluded the JOA's termination is "not inconsistent" with federal antitrust laws.

In its announcement Monday, Hearst focused not on the print P-I's death but on the Web enterprise's rebirth. It won't be an online newspaper, Hearst Newspapers President Steven Swartz said in a prepared statement, but "a new type of digital business with a robust community news and information Web site at its core."

Several other daily newspapers, including the Cincinnati Post's Kentucky Post edition and The Capital Times of Madison, Wis., have stopped daily print publication in recent months in favor of beefed-up Web operations. But the P-I is the largest paper yet to make the change.

"Nobody has tried this on quite this scale or in quite this way before," said Randy Beam, a University of Washington communications professor who studies newspaper management.

Hearst and seattlepi.com executives said holdover P-I reporters would continue to cover breaking news, courts and local government, and that several familiar P-I columnists would continue to write for the site.

But Swartz said seattlepi.com also would feature columns from prominent Seattleites, reader blogs and links to other Web sites and blogs.

"Our strategy moving forward is to experiment a lot and fail fast," Michelle Nicolosi, the site's executive producer, said in a post.

The Web site will hire 10 to 20 people to sell advertising, a function formerly performed by The Times, Millstein said. "Ultimately, it'll be successful if we can make a business out of it," he said.

Swartz has said recently that Hearst intends to start charging for some content on its newspapers' Web sites. But Luthringer said in an e-mail that seattlepi.com will be free.

The site will include some content from other Hearst news outlets. For instance, Nicolosi said in her post that seattlepi.com will include health and home articles from such Hearst magazines as Cosmopolitan and Esquire.

And Millstein said advertising partnerships with other companies — including some Internet startups in which Hearst has a large or controlling stake — are a significant element in seattlepi.com's business plan.

Hearst has had an online-advertising partnership with Yahoo since 2006, for instance, but the P-I has not been included because The Times handled the paper's advertising. With the JOA gone, seattlepi.com now will benefit from that partnership, Millstein said.

Those connections should help the revamped Web venture, said newspaper consultant Miles Groves, former chief economist for the Newspaper Association of America.

"Hearst can do a lot of things others can't do because of the way it's structured," he said. "This is a lab opportunity for them. If they can make it work in Seattle, you'll see it elsewhere."

The venture's success probably hinges on whether it's able to sustain Web traffic without a print component, he added: "How strong is that brand?"

Doctor, the media analyst, agreed. The P-I site and seattletimes.com are neck-and-neck in traffic by most measures now, he said, but the online P-I, with a news staff just 10 percent the size of The Times, will have to do something different to keep attracting viewers.

Eric Pryne: 206-464-2231 or epryne@seattletimes.com

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