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05.15.09

The Newspaper Savior

Washington state's Chris Gregoire is being hailed as the first governor in the nation to funnel taxpayer money into her state's ailing newspaper industry. In an exclusive interview, she talks about why the folding of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's print edition affected her so profoundly, her own brief stint as a journalist—and why she won't get a free pass from the reporters whose careers she's helping to save.

As she becomes the first governor in the nation to funnel taxpayer money into her state's ailing newspaper industry this week, Washington state's Chris Gregoire is being hailed as a crusader for the survival of the press. In an exclusive interview, she talks about why the folding of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's print edition affected her so profoundly, her own brief stint as a journalist—and why she won't get a free pass from the reporters whose careers she's helping to save.

There are no ink stains on Chris Gregoire’s power suits, but maybe she deserves a Pulitzer Prize for excellence in journalism anyway. With the stroke of her pen this week, the 62-year-old governor of Washington has done more to save her state's struggling newspaper business than two dozen genius publishers—and she just might have started a national trend.

The last time she worked on a newspaper, Gregoire was a teenager in the Pacific Northwest town of Auburn. “I was in middle school, though back then they called it junior high, and I started a school newspaper that I put out every week,” Gregoire told me yesterday. “It was fun for a couple of years, but I never did anything past that. I got called out once by the school administration. They didn’t like the coverage of a dance we were going to have. I look back on it and laugh now. It was a big deal to them that we couldn’t encourage anything that would result in a ‘public display of affection.’”

“I have had my fair share of unfair coverage—particularly during election season,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it’s not about me.”

The 25 dailies and 100-odd weeklies of Washington—many of which are struggling along with the rest of the nation’s newspaper biz—might now be tempted to show their governor a little love. This week she signed into law a 40 percent corporate-tax break for “every person engaging within this state in the business of printing a newspaper, publishing a newspaper, or both”—a measure that gives newspapers the same preferred tax status as Boeing and Microsoft.

Thus Gregoire, a two-term Democrat, became America’s first governor to funnel taxpayer money to the imperiled newspaper industry—but possibly not the last.

“All of a sudden policymakers across the country are in a state of high anxiety about the financial state of the press—for good reason,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism. “The financial foundation of the press for the last century—advertising—is collapsing in the face of the audience migration to the internet.” But Rosenstiel isn’t sure whether Gregoire’s solution is the right one. “We don’t know yet about the implications of having different policies in every state,” he said, “especially when most media companies operate around the country and in some cases the world.”

But Gregoire has brushed off such concerns to assume the role of print journalism’s Mother Teresa—caring for the sick and dying in her state’s paper business. The situation in Washington is dire indeed. In recent months, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shuttered its print operation—firing most of its staff and going online only—while the Vancouver Columbian declared bankruptcy.

“Absolutely I miss it,” Gregoire said about the P-I, which closed down in March after 146 years of publishing, leaving the city with a single paper, the Seattle Times. “It gave us a different perspective, whether it was editorial or news coverage. I miss the competition. It has been an icon. In fact, the P-I Globe is standing on the waterfront, and people are shocked that it will one day be taken away. When you go in their building, I tell you, it is heart-wrenching. It almost looks like one day something happened, and everyone got up and left.”

After the P-I’s death, the state newspaper association sent the governor and the state legislature an SOS. A tax-relief provision was quickly passed, but then dropped out of the final budget as officials struggled to close a $9 billion deficit. But, in the waning hours of the legislative session, Gregoire persuaded the leadership to restore the provision, which saves Washington’s $600 million newspaper biz about $2 million in taxes.

“This was to send a message that we have to have a transparent democracy and informed public, and I’m proud my legislature stepped up,” Gregoire said. “We wanted to help a little bit, but it wasn’t done lightly. These are tough economic times—the worst in history since the Depression. We are laying off thousands of state employees and teachers, and we’re cutting people off health care—difficult times. But we did what we could.”

Never mind that Gregoire, like any governor, has taken her lumps in the press. “I have had my fair share of unfair coverage—particularly during election season,” she said. “But at the end of the day, it’s not about me, it’s not about coverage I may object to or think wasn’t fair. It’s about having an informed citizenry, having a watchdog of government at all levels, their investigative reporting surfacing the stories that otherwise wouldn’t have surfaced and bringing about change that otherwise would never happen.”

So on Tuesday, when Gregoire conducted a signing ceremony at the Seattle Aquarium, it prompted gallows quips among the various lobbyists present that the fish weren’t the only thing that was underwater.

Can the governor now expect an easy ride from the press? One of those lobbyists, state newspaper association director Rowland Thompson, a fan of Gregoire, said the governor shouldn’t expect her coverage to turn more favorable as a result of her largesse.

“No, not at all,” Thompson told me. “She got lit up the day she signed the bill.”

Lloyd Grove is a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.