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Our troubled newspapers - Sound News

Our troubled newspapers

By Sound News reporter Erica Petru

A few weeks before today’s final edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Robert McClure’s desk in the paper’s newsroom was stacked with countless yellow notepads, books on the Puget Sound, files, papers, mail, and inspiring bumper-stickers saying things like “Democracy Depends on Journalism” and “Never Give Up.”  It was strange to think that after roughly a decade of hard work at the P-I, soon his desk – full of history and personality – would be nothing more than a lifeless cubicle.

Today marks the end of the 146 year-old newspaper. What remains is a solely online news source with drastically reduced coverage.

The closure of the Seattle P-I represents the larger trend of newspaper closures across the nation.  The problem: scarcely any funding for journalism in an economic crisis.  In the Puget Sound, strong, dynamic environmental reporting educates readers on the issues that our Sound faces and the efforts on behalf of environmental agencies and organizations to improve the health of this unique ecosystem.  At the moment there is no clear replacement for this service.

With the closure of the P-I, there is increased pressure for environmental reporters outside of the P-I, including Lynda Mapes from the Seattle Times, to increase coverage of issues around the Sound.

Mapes and McClure have both devoted much of their time and effort to reporting on environmental news around the Puget Sound.  The two reporters share an inherent interest in the natural world.  McClure’s extends back to when his father would stir him out of bed in the wee hours of the morning to go fishing.  Mapes’ is rooted in her deep appreciation of everything from clouds to the “wily ways of newts.”

Covering everything from salmon recovery to land use and development, the two reporters have made an effort to report local environmental issues.

Our troubled Sound

The "bullpen" in the newsroom of the Seattle P-I

The "bullpen" in the newsroom of the Seattle P-I

McClure, interviewed several weeks before the final edition, recalled a meeting in the Seattle P-I’s “bullpen” back in 2002 in which the staff looked out of the window onto the waters of the Puget Sound and said, “I wonder how the Sound’s doing?”  Soon after, McClure, P-I reporter Lisa Stiffler, and their managing editor published the five part series, “Our troubled Sound.”  The series examined water pollution, dwindling biodiversity, the dangers of development, the threat of oil spills, and solutions to these numerous environmental problems.  McClure explained that writing the series was “exhausting,” but it did get Puget Sound environmental issues back on the radar, not only for the general public but for reporters as well.

From his experience with the series and his regular coverage of Puget Sound environmental issues, McClure said he believes that land use, stormwater runoff, and the risk of oils spills are the most important topics regarding the health of the Sound.  Mapes added that development issues are a huge subject: “It’s about being careful,” she said.


A lose-lose situation

Mike Sato, director of communications, education, and involvement at People for Puget Sound predicts that on par with issues of development and stormwater is the threat of less environmental news coverage in the Sound.

Sato relies on journalists from the P-I and the Times to “ask the questions that readers would want asked and answered.”  People for Puget Sound and similar environmental organizations depend on environmental reporters to fill the “tremendous gap” between environmental issues and the public.  And according to Sato, McClure and his colleagues at the P-I have played a large role in filling that gap over the years.  He is accustomed to waking up and knowing that he can count on a phone call with McClure.

Paul Bergman, Communications Director at the Puget Sound Partnership, has also been stressing lately about the loss of environmental reporters like McClure.  He cited the P-I as the main Seattle newspaper to report Puget Sound clean-up efforts.  “They made it matter,” he said.

Bergman said that the Puget Sound Partnership has been searching for new ways to reach the public.  So far, “no silver bullets.”

Mapes would agree that the closure of the Seattle P-I does not bode well for the Puget Sound.  This is “real public interest at stake here, it’s not trivial,” she said, “It’s a very big loss.”  Mapes said she understands that while some readers enjoy the Seattle Times, others feel as if the P-I is their paper.


The big picture for papers

After 146 years of reporting, the P-I globe has become a symbol for Seattle.

After 146 years of reporting, the P-I globe has become a symbol for Seattle.

The closure of the Seattle P-I represents the current threat to traditional news reporting.  A study by the PEW Research Center for People & the Press estimates that readership of printed newspapers has declined from 58% in the early 1990’s to 34% in 2008.  Meanwhile, regular online readership has increased from nearly nothing to 37%.

An article in Time listed the top 10 most endangered American newspapers: the Philadelphia Daily News, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Miami Herald, the Detroit News, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Chicago Sun-Times, the New York Daily News, the Fort Worth Star Telegram, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

McClure attributed the trend of newspaper closures to an “overall meltdown in the news business.”  He said he fears that the “watchdogs may just be gone.”  McClure explained that in 1993, 37 reporters covered legislative news in Olympia.  This year there were ten.  If reporters aren’t watching politicians, he said, the politicians try to get away with things.  Sato said that McClure was one of the few who asked the hard questions to keep those in power accountable for their actions.

Uncertainty
What will happen to news coverage of the Puget Sound?  It’s tough to say.  Mapes acknowledged the virtues of internet technology, but insisted that people need the complete information and credibility that a newspaper provides.  For Sato, it’s difficult to imagine an age where we don’t have newspapers.

Perhaps no one is spending more time thinking about this possibility than the reporters and staff at the Seattle P-I.  McClure explained that there has been quite a bit of “gallows humor” to break the “uneasiness and stress.”

The idea that specialized and experienced reporters have few options for continuing the service that they provide is disheartening.  Mapes has hope that there is indeed a venue through which these journalists can continue their line of work.

“I mean, all these reporters aren’t gonna go grow broccoli,” she said.

McClure surely hopes that Mapes is right.  He doesn’t know what he’ll be doing come fall.  He may even be off somewhere, growing broccoli.

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  1. We miss the PI. But we say thanks for the coverage for the Ingraham Trees. The battle still rages, though quieter now, because papers like the PI are not available to be the “watch dog” over large business/public entities like the Seattle School District, Mayor and City Council.

    The Reporters who were on top of the Story at Ingraham may mark a day of victory for trees, ecology and environment on their calendar, May 4, 2009. On this day the Hearing Examiner for the City of Seattle determined that a rare, uncommon plant association did exist in the Ingraham Trees. AND the City is responsible to evaluate the plant association when making decisions regarding tree removal within the City limits. The entire ecological picture must be apart of a decision when it comes to building projects, not just one element. Others who must battle the system for preservation of the Environment now have another arrow in their arsenal, a precedent case to argue with.

    Though the fate of the Ingraham Tree Grove remains in the hands of the School District, Courts and Architects. It was the reporters for Local Environmental issues that have won a huge battle for trees in Seattle. By bringing the Trees to the public, the City Council, Mayor, School District and DPD were forced to reevaluate their stance and lack of knowledge in regards to the importance of trees, plant association and habitat…the entire ecological community.

    I miss the PI, and say thank you to Local Environmental Reporters.