Related Stories: ? Second Dispatch: A Crucial Week in Publishing History
? Third Dispatch: Part 1, Keeping the Pressure On; Part 2, Funding the Fight Editor's Note: This is the first of a series of dispatches from the Seattle Union Record newsroom. The Seattle Times and Post-Intelligencer both went on strike on November 20.
You'll forgive them if they're not quite ready for visitors.
Despite almost a full week into an aggressive publication schedule after launching a Web site light on content Monday evening on Nov. 20; through national press coverage and even the release of a print edition drawn primarily from material posted to the site, the staff of the Seattle Union Record, the online news publication run by striking employees of Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper, have yet to had a full staff meeting.
That will change Sunday morning, Nov. 26, when a large percentage of the estimated 150 striking workers who have chosen to work on the Union Record are expected to attend the publication's first full-staff meeting in the nondescript temporary office at 2900 Eastlake Avenue East.
Donated by the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Guild, the offices are a solid five-minute drive from downtown Seattle and the picket line. While cramped and apparently not intended to house a working publication, the building, equipped with DSL lines, became the publication's de facto home when closer sites proved inadequate. They shared space with another local labor effort attempting to unionize workers at Amazon.com.
On a Saturday afternoon scarred by the sort of cold, wet rain for which the city is well-known, what one imagines to be a miserable day to be on the picket line, the faces of those striding in and out of the temporary offices seem business-like and upbeat. Sitting in a waiting room decorated by popular labor figures, one can hear the phone ring repeatedly, more than once for someone the person answering had never heard of.
I was granted access to the Union Record newsroom, but not without concern that the unconventional nature of an online newsroom made it hard to disseminate to the paper's staff that a reporter would be on the premises.
It is a crucial time for Chuck Taylor, the Union Record's managing editor and a striking Seattle Times reporter, as they head into their all-important second week because the site will no longer have the intial burst of attention from publicity. If the Web site's strike-related goals of providing a viable alternative to the local press editions, as a reminder of their value to those institutions, then an excellent second week will set a tone for a potential extended run.
Taylor is well-spoken and articulate in a way not always seen amongst newspaper reporters. Although he describes himself as a designer and as one of his newspaper's strongest backers for online publishing, Taylor works for the Times' print edition.
Still, his enthusiasm for the online project is obvious, and he remains adamant that even with the publication of a hard-copy version, the core of the striking workers' response, in terms of alternative news coverage, will remain on the Web site.
At the halfway point of my time in the offices, Taylor stepped upstairs to see a new suite of rooms just made available for the Union Record. Stamping through much more delineated office space, Taylor checked off the number of rooms available for different Union Record departments.
For the next 20 minutes, whenever he encountered someone taking a break from their work on the site, Taylor advised they take a few minutes and go up one floor to see the new offices for themselves. It's hard not to believe him when he said, 'This is huge.'
The bustle of activity with Taylor at its center is a far cry from the site's humble origins. As the potential for a strike loomed, it occurred to him that because of similar worker-led publishing efforts in Detroit (a print publication) and in San Francisco (an online publication), that something similar would happen in Seattle.
'I just assumed it would happen one way or the other,' he said.
'WEB PRODUCT WOULD BE THE MAIN DEAL'
The difference for Taylor between the Union Record and strike publications in the past is the changing role of the Web.
'Back in '95 or '96, when this kind of thing was done before, the Web was not the ubiquitous thing it is now,' he said. 'And we're also at a time where newspapers are starting to get way more active with their Web sites, although they're still afraid to put too much emphasis on that because they want to hang onto that print product. Which is still the thing that makes money.'
One such paper, according to Taylor, is the Seattle Times. 'The company wasn't slow among newspapers, but it wasn't a leader, either, it was sort of middle of the pack as far as getting active on the Web.'
Two major factors having to do with the newsroom reaction to the strike dictated the way the Union Record was formed. The first was that Taylor was left alone to put the site together while nearly everyone else's attention was elsewhere. This is indeed one reason why a Web site, and not a print edition, has been the striking workers' focus.
'I knew that if we had a strike, we were going to do a newspaper of some sort,' Taylor said. 'And my particular vision was that Web product would be the main deal, and not the printed paper.'
When Taylor stepped forward to lead the potential alternative paper effort, he entered into a job description with plenty of operating room. 'I volunteered to be the managing editor,' he said. 'When you do that, when you volunteer for such a terrible job like that, you get to do anything you want. I had a lot of latitude, and I just did what I thought would work.'
In less than two weeks -- maybe 10 days, says Taylor -- between when he was officially named as managing editor and when the strike was called and the site went up, Taylor worked as efficiently as possible.
'I started recruiting people,' he said. 'I started disseminating the idea for the concept: why we want to do it, how we're going to do it, while it will be effective. I started sending out e-mails on that, getting people thinking about it.'
But with a strike on the horizon, little energy existed to think of the post-strike responses. 'We really didn't have this planned out super well,' Taylor said. 'The first meeting I had, four people showed up. Fortunately they were four pretty smart people. But the membership of the union was not ready to get involved in something like this because it's a sign we were going on strike. Right until the first night we put it up, we had very limited help because everybody was dealing in their own way with the fact that we were about to go on strike.'
Taylor credits his ability to target people based on his appraisal of their essential skills as being vital to the site's initial launch. He recruited a photo director with a reputation for technical improvisation, and the Times' copy desk chief. 'I tried to get some of those sorts of people onboard early on.'
The physical set-up didn't take place until a week ago Friday. 'It was my understanding we were going to get DSL lines and computers lined up, and space down by the newspaper,' Taylor said. 'Early Friday I send an e-mail asking 'Hey, how are you doing on this stuff?' And Friday afternoon I got a call, saying, 'Well, Qwest will be happy to install the DSL on December 1st, and we really haven't nailed down anything on those computers, and not only that but the space at the Bricklayers' Hall is not what we thought it would be.'
Taylor ended up buying the computers -- four Apple Macintosh G4s and four iMacs -- used by the Union Record on Saturday and setting them up in their current home by taking over Guild offices equipped with DSL connections (the publication has since added two iMacs and other computing hardware brought in by various striking workers). For technical support, the site leaned on a networking consultant. 'He's been working his ass off ever since,' Taylor said.
The site's only paid employee is Mike Blain of Powerup Media, a company that specializes in non-profit and labor-related Web sites. Taylor said that Blain built the site's database from scratch in order to allow for flexibility in the site's presentation -- a plus given that Taylor and crew had no idea how stories would be reported -- and remains on-call for problems during the site's expansion.
SITE CONTENT vs. STRIKE CONTENT
That first day, overall, was a mixed blessing for Taylor. 'The site the first day frankly wasn't very attractive,' he laughs. 'And it wasn't full of content, but it was up there. We had a big strike story, and we were the only paper in town to have a story about what happened that night, the fact that the strike was on,' pointing out that the Times and Post-Intelligencer had gone to press early with their strike editions due to nervousness about getting the paper out and delivered under strike conditions. 'If I had to do it over again, I'd probably wait a day, but we planted a flag.'
From that first day of publication, the Union Record has received a great deal of support from fellow labor members, journalists worldwide, and local audiences happy to have access to their favorite local writers and columnists without interruption. Some parts of Taylor's strategies are dictated by his perception of strike goals.
'My goal is to emphasize columists, and investigative reporters, and the kinds of stories we know how to break because of our sources and our expertise,' he said. 'And photography -- we have some of the best shooters in the country here.'
However, Taylor admits that some habits are harder to change than others, and that the online Union Record still produces content more like a print pubication.
'My fantasy is to have it change. In practice, we're still a morning paper. My fantasy is at some point to be posting stories as they're available,' Taylor said. 'But the problem is, everybody is still really used to having until the end of the day to finish their stories. Once we get our processes in place, and things are runing more smoothly, we'll feel freer to make it a 24-hour news operation and not just a morning paper online.'
Asked if there were differences between the way different departments have adjusted to online publication, or how reporters have adapted as opposed to columnists and photographers, Taylor cited a wide range of familiarity with online media across departments and job titles. Where Taylor saw some distinct differences was between certain types of writers used to competing. 'Certain departments are working very well together. Photography was one.'
'The mesh has been very much fine. It's a kick, because you know everyone's style,' said Alan Berner, a striking Seattle Times photographer working for the Union Record. 'We're competitors on the street, but it's a friendly competition. It's very neat.'
Taylor cites the copy desk and design as other areas where cooperation has been very high.
'The stickiest area is reporting,' Taylor admits. 'In some cases it's fine, but there are some reporters who are on very competitive beats.'
He cited the close election count on the U.S. Senate race between Maria Cantwell and two-time incumbent Slade Gorton as an example. 'We had Joe Connelly, a 25-year veteran journalist of politics in this area, and Dionne Searcey , a young up-and-comer who has been covering a Senate race, and is very competitive. It was clear to me we were not going to take these two reporters' work, and put them into one story with a double byline. It didn't make sense. So we ran both stories. You can do that on the Web without it looking too weird. And they were both happy.' Taylor added that Connelly even admitted to the competition on his tag-line
Key for Taylor in watching the operation grow is making clear the differences between site content and strike content.
'[The Union Record] is a tool to end the strike. But I also want it to be a very credible mainstream news operation that is relatively indistinguishable from what things seem like when everything is normal. Same standards, same story decisions,' he said. 'We're certainly covering the stirke because it's a big story in town, but my orders are that it be done without bias, that it reads like an AP story. We're working on a separate page that is the union's take on it, and we'll link to that. But I want the Union Record to look like a newspaper that happens to be affiliated with a labor organization.'
But the benefits for strike strategy are enormous. First there are general, positive emotional benefits for morale. 'It has been a release, a distraction, where we can focus on the stuff we usually do, but in an unusual way,' Taylor said.
But he also said that having a site was a key element in bringing together disparate parts of the strike force. 'The other departments in the newspaper are quite militant about this whole thing. It's the people in the news department at the Seattle Times that are really conflicted about this.'
Taylor believes that the Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen has done everything a publisher can to foster good journalism, including backing up the newsroom despite advertising being pulled, insuring proper funding, and maintaining a hands-off attitude.
'[Blethen's] heart is definitely in the right place journalistically, the problem is he's got a blind spot on the compensation issue, especially in departments other than the newsroom,' Taylor said.
Stressing that these were his private views and not the Guild's, Taylor continued, 'So you've got all these journalists who aren't joiners to begin with. Union membership is not a comfortable thing to begin with. Suddenly, we're in this cause. We want to get it over with as soon as possible. Well, what's the most effective way to do that? Rally public support and understanding for the work we do, and to make them plainly aware of our absence. So the Web site and the paper are ways to do that.'
Looking to the future, Taylor remains optimistic that the Union Record will have a short and happy life, and sounds more like a union regular than managing editor when suggesting a final measure for its success. 'I don't know if it will go for a month or if a week from now something is suddenly going to happen. I'm planning for the long run, but I'm hoping for a short settlement. The whole idea of this thing is to put as much pressure journalistically on them as possible. To drive home the point that in this day and age, it's not enough to own the press, and it's not enough to merely enable good journalism with good policies -- which the publisher does do. It's a business, and we have to make a living, and we need to feel valued in more ways than just letting us alone to do good journalism.'
'This bad event has created an interesting opportunity. Hopefully we'll settle this and we'll all go back with a lot of new ideas to take back to our newsrooms.'