The End for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer

The P-I had beaten the competition to the punch. The Seattle newspaper, known formally as the Post-Intelligencer, broke the story in 1988 that Sen. Brock Adams had been accused of sexually assaulting a congressional aide and family friend. The chase was on. The P-I's cross-town rival, The Seattle Times, countered with a three-year investigation, which found eight women who claimed to have been harassed by the senator. Adams, who denied the allegations, decided not to run again, the Times won a slew of awards—and the P-I nursed a grudge. Shortly after the story was published, reporters from both papers found themselves aboard the same flight—one of them armed with accolades, the other empty-handed. "A little bit of the enamel ground off my teeth on that flight," the P-I reporter told KUOW-FM, a Seattle public-radio station.

And so it has gone, for more than 100 years. Whether trading scoops on the construction of the city's landmark Space Needle or entering into a bidding war to see who would be first to summit Mount St. Helens to cover its 1980 eruption, Seattle's two newspapers have battled tirelessly—and, in the words of one local media veteran, "bitterly"—for journalistic preeminence. The combat ceased in mid-March, when declining circulation, plummeting ad sales and a failure to find a buyer led the P-I's parent company, the Hearst Corp., to stop printing the paper. The victor dutifully wrote the obituary of the vanquished. But the intense rivalry made it a tricky assignment. Imagine Barack Obama writing John McCain's life story, or Goldman Sachs presiding at Lehman Brothers' funeral.

Many of Seattle's journalists had worked at both papers, creating conflicts of interest in covering the story. And there were emotional entanglements. "There are people in this newsroom who have spouses who lost their job at the P-I," says Eric Pryne, a Times reporter assigned to the obit, who has been with his paper since the 1970s. "Anytime you see journalists lose their jobs at another institution, there's a lot of sadness." Local blogs crackled with complaints that the Times had given the story short shrift. And some P-I staffers were peeved that the Times highlighted a strike that prevented the P-I from publishing on the historic occasion of FDR's reelection to a second presidential term. (A month after the election, Roosevelt's son-in-law was named publisher of the paper, and the president's daughter came aboard, editing the women's pages.) "The P-I was an icon of the city, even for people not into news," says Eli Sanders, who covered the story for The Stranger, a local alternative weekly. "So the Times had to be careful not to seem like they were dancing on that grave."

The story may be tricky, but it's becoming increasingly familiar. The Rocky Mountain News closed in February, leaving The Denver Post to pick up the pieces. Chicago, Detroit and Honolulu are all two-newspaper towns on the verge of losing one. As many as a quarter of all newspaper jobs will be lost by the end of 2009, according to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. Last week, Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland introduced the Newspaper Revitalization Act, a bill that would give newspapers a nonprofit status similar to that awarded to public-broadcasting stations. And Attorney General Eric Holder has hinted that he may be willing to tweak antitrust policy if it would help preserve the industry. But for now, the economic slump, an aging readership, and an explosion of free journalism online has newspapers heading for the morgue—thereby spiking the kinds of stories made possible by fierce competition.

Of course, the competitive juices don't dry up just because the doors are closing. Just ask Hal Bernton, a Times reporter who called in sick so he could organize a memorial rally in support of P-I staffers. "We've been so competitive for so many years," says Bernton. "It's hard to realize that we're all print journalists, so all our jobs are at risk." But most of the P-I team stayed away, preferring to gather around their city desk and sip a little bourbon.

The P-I lives on as a Web site, and a dramatically scaled-down staff is carrying the fight forward online. (Hearst has prohibited the remaining employees from speaking to the media, though a corporate spokesman called the competitor's coverage "thoughtful.") Over at the Times, the ink was barely dry on the obit before the victor began cashing in. On March 17, the day the P-I ceased publication, David Boardman, executive editor of the Times, sent out a welcome to his rival's 100,000-plus subscribers, who woke that morning to find the Times on their driveways. "Thank you for reading The Seattle Times," he wrote. "We know that many of your families had decades-long loyalty to the P-I, and that you've lost a familiar friend. As with any new relationship, we know this will take some time."