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Originally published January 8, 2009 at 5:20 PM | Page modified January 9, 2009 at 1:10 AM

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KING-TV: Seattle P-I for sale, could close

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is setting the stage for closure, according to a report by KING-TV.

The future of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer appeared uncertain tonight after a local television station reported the newspaper is setting the stage for closure — but then the paper's managing editor said he knew of no such plans.

KING-TV reported at 5 p.m. that the P-I will be put up for sale. The information was attributed to an unnamed source who is "close to the deal." The television station said that neither the Hearst Corporation, which owns the P-I, nor the paper's publisher was available to immediately confirm the report. However, the source said the news could be officially announced as early as tomorrow.

"We're told Hearst does not expect another buyer to step forward and that Seattle will likely become a one newspaper town within the next few months," KING reported.

But soon after, the P-I posted a report saying managing editor David McCumber knows of no plans to sell the paper. At about 5:15 p.m., according to the P-I, McCumber told the newsroom's staffers, "If this is going on — and I don't know that it is — it's going on at a level that's far above me, and nobody has seen fit to clue me in. I think it's a bunch of rumor.

"You look at the state of this business — it wouldn't surprise me if something was going on, but I have no knowledge of what that something is."

Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen was likewise taken aback today: "I'm stunned," he said in a hallway off the main newsroom. He later put out a statement to Times employees: "We have had no verifiable confirmation of this [KING-TV] report. We will communicate further with you once we have heard whether this information is accurate or not.""The rumors of our demise have been exaggerated in the past," McCumber said in an interview at the P-I lobby. At the P-I, it will be business as usual on Friday, he said, and his staffers will be "putting out a newspaper, updating the Web and committing journalism."

Several P-I reporters and editors said people working in the newsroom when the KING-TV report aired were initially stunned, confused and angry.

They were like "hornets, with everybody buzzing around, saying, 'What do you know? What do you hear?' " said columnist Joel Connelly.

They recognized, though, that the report was unconfirmed, according to Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist David Horsey.

"My first reaction was I'm not sure KING-TV knows what they're talking about," Horsey said.

"We're still trying to sort out what it means and how this is all going to play out."

Connelly said that if the rumor turns out to be true, the loss of one paper would be a loss for the community and that politicians would be able to get away with a little more and issues would be probed a little less.

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"Competition is something that is stimulating," Connelly said.

Several reporters, who asked not to be named, said they were "worried" and "sad" about the possibility of their paper closing.

"It sucks," said one.

"We don't know anything," said reporter Daniel Lathrop. "I grew up in Seattle and the P-I is supposed to have been on the verge of closing my entire life."

Horsey said in some sense it did feel as if the TV report was what people in the industry had been expecting for some time.

"It was like, OK, this is what we have been waiting for, some kind of a change in the relationship between The Seattle Times and the P-I because it couldn't go on like this forever."

"These are not happy days in the newspaper world," Horsey said.

The union that represents workers at both the P-I and the Times said it had received no information about a sale or closure.

"Just about every newspaper in America is on life support right now. So while nothing would surprise me, we don't have any indication that an announcement about the sale or closure of the P-I is imminent," said Liz Brown, administrative officer for the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild.

Under a joint-operating agreement between the two newspapers, the P-I must be offered for sale for at least 30 days before it can cease operation.

Said Seattle City Councilman Nick Licata: "I think it's a horrible tragedy. Losing a daily newspaper in a city of our size is a contraction of our whole society. It means that useful information critical for intelligent discourse will shrink."

Editor & Publisher magazine reported last month that incoming Hearst Newspapers President Steve Swartz had sent employees a memo hinting at possible cutbacks and plans for "100 Days of Change" beginning in early 2009.

"These are historically difficult times for our country and our industry, and our problems will likely worsen over the months ahead. Many companies in our industry find themselves saddled with far too much debt, and a painful restructuring process has just begun, with all the negative publicity that comes with that," the memo states.

"We at Hearst benefit from being such a strong and diversified company, but we haven't been spared the difficulties of a newspaper industry in the midst of a difficult transition. We've had to make some tough decisions over the past couple of years, and we'll have to make more before we've returned this division to a path of sustained profit growth, which we are committed to doing."

He later notes the "100 Days of Change" plan, but with few specifics.

Anne Bremner, co-chair of the Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town, which has fought for years to preserve the joint-operating agreement between The Times and the P-I, said tonight she has no information about whether the P-I will be put up for sale but would be "stunned and sick about it" if the P-I did end up closing.

The P-I is the state's oldest daily newspaper. It can trace it roots back 146 years, to 1863. The office is located on the Elliott Bay waterfront and is home to a Seattle landmark: a huge, steel neon-lit globe with the slogan: "It's in the P-I."

About 160 staffers at the paper work under the leadership of Publisher Roger Oglesby and McCumber. The P-I's press, pre-press, advertising, circulation and marketing functions have been handled since 1983 by The Seattle Times Co. under the terms of the joint-operating agreement.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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