Why What Happened In Battle Of S.F. Dailies Won't Be Repeated Here

Does the sale of one San Francisco newspaper and likely closure of another portend anything for Seattle?

The question is understandable, given similarities between the two newspaper markets. The answer is no, because there are even greater dissimilarities.

San Francisco and Seattle are among the small number of cities with two metro daily newspapers. In both cities, the newspapers operate jointly as businesses. And, in both cities, one of the newspapers is owned by The Hearst Corp. and the other is owned by a local family.

In San Francisco, the newspapers are the Examiner, owned by Hearst, and the Chronicle, owned by heirs of the De Young family. In Seattle, the newspapers are the Post-Intelligencer, owned by Hearst, and The Seattle Times, owned by the Blethen family.

The dissimilarities are rooted in the participation and long-term commitment of the family owners.

The Chronicle announced a couple of months ago that the De Young heirs had decided to get out of the newspaper business. Hearst will buy the Chronicle and try to sell the Examiner. In the likely event that no one wants it, the Examiner will be merged with the Chronicle.

In contrast, an announcement from the Blethen family several months ago confirms their dedication to staying in the newspaper business. Giving up a sizable chunk of their profits, the Blethens bought the opportunity for The Times to compete directly against the P-I as a morning newspaper.

That move will happen as soon as possible. We're not sure when the change will happen, but we know it won't be until sometime after the first of the year.

Unlike the De Young heirs, whose involvement with the Chronicle was limited to directorships, the Blethens are actively involved in the daily operation of The Times. The fourth generation of Blethen family members serve among the senior management of the company, and the fifth generation are starting careers here.

Their long-term commitment to newspapers was reaffirmed last year when they bought the newspapers in Portland, Augusta and Waterville, Maine.

Their personal participation in running the business has been critical to the continuing investment in and health of The Times, which is another significant difference between San Francisco and Seattle.

The morning Chronicle has a daily circulation of nearly 500,000, while Hearst's afternoon Examiner languishes around 115,000. In contrast, both newspapers in Seattle are successful. The afternoon Times actually leads in daily circulation with about 230,000, while the morning P-I has around 195,000.

The Times will move to morning while it is healthy, rather than risking "death in the afternoon," the fate of most p.m. newspapers, including the Examiner.

Since 1983, the two newspapers have been in what is called a Joint Operating Agreement (JOA), under which The Times handles most business functions for the P-I. The Times company prints, markets and distributes both newspapers and sells advertising for both. It has managed the JOA to the benefit of both newspapers.

Ownership of the newspapers remains separate, but the two parent companies share profits according to an agreed formula. Most importantly, the news and editorial operations of the two are separate, independent and competitive with each other.

The competitiveness is largely misunderstood in the community, mostly because the Sunday newspaper carries the names of both The Times and P-I. In fact, the Sunday newspaper is almost exclusively the work of The Times' newsroom. The P-I staff contributes only the three pages of "Focus" editorial material and the selection of their share of the comics pages.

The news that The Times would become a morning newspaper was greeted with concern that Hearst would allow the P-I to wither. Its actions to date and the San Francisco move suggest otherwise.

Hearst reportedly is paying $660 million to buy the Chronicle, a huge commitment to being in the newspaper business. I suspect they have a long-term view about Seattle and believe they can prevail here, no matter how long it might take.

Because of the new arrangement in Seattle, Hearst has more money to invest in the P-I if it chooses. Anyone paying any attention at all can see evidence that they are doing that.

Working in the P-I's immediate favor is being entrenched in the morning field. It has been their franchise, and The Times must compete for that turf. Anyone paying attention to the comparative content of the two papers knows we'll do that.

Moving to morning won't mean that The Times will stop being the newspaper people here have come to rely on. There are solid reasons we have been successful, unlike other afternoon newspapers. Our best hope for future success is to be even better than we have been.

Nor will the move change our core values of remaining private and independent, serving the community through quality journalism and being the nation's best regional newspaper. Those are personal commitments the Blethens live by and renew every day.

No one can say how Seattleites will react to morning newspaper competition, but it should be a vibrant contest between two dedicated contenders. Readers will benefit as the two newspapers compete for your support and loyalty.

Debugging the millennium

Reprints of The Times' 10-part series on preparing for Y2K are available. Turn to page B 2 for information about obtaining them.

The series was an example of the kind of journalism you'll find only in The Times.

Inside The Times appears each Sunday. If you have a comment about news coverage, write to Michael R. Fancher, P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111, call 206-464-3310, or send e-mail to mfancher@seattletimes.com