JOA Reporter: Stress and Surprises

By: Joe Strupp Two years into The Seattle Times' JOA reporter experiment, the unusual freelance contract between the newspaper and veteran reporter Bill Richards, seems to be working. But that doesn't mean that they've enjoyed a stress-free relationship ? or that Richards and the paper are prepared to extend the contract when it ends next January, despite the likelihood that Seattle's JOA battle will still be raging.

With less than a year left on the three-year-deal, both Richards and Times officials appear pleased with the arrangement that gives Richards near carte blanche to write about the Times' joint-operating-agreement battle with The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Richards, a former staffer for The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek who signed on to cover the JOA squabble in January 2003, said the arrangement has run well: "I think we have done a pretty good job and the people reading the stories are getting a pretty full picture" of the ongoing conflict between the two Seattle papers. Times Managing Editor David Boardman agrees, saying of the coverage, "I think ultimately it has been very aggressive and fair."

Although the paper has not refused to run any of his stories ? or forced any disputes to go to a mediator as his contract allows ? Richards says a handful of his articles have sparked "a lot of talk" at the paper before being published. Times officials would not say if they are ready to extend the contract, while Richards contends an extension should occur because the JOA struggle is not expected to end before his contract does.

Richards' deal pays him a monthly stipend, without a required minimum or maximum number of stories each month. A provision in the deal allows Richards to cover any aspect of the story and requires the Times to publish his coverage, unaltered, unless it can provide a valid reason to deny publication.

If a dispute arises, either side can go to a mediator, former Poynter Institute President James M. Naughton, to resolve the dispute. If the Times decides to ignore Naughton's ruling, Richards may pull out of the contract, and would be paid the remainder of his fee. But if the Times believes Richards is not fulfilling his part of the contract, and Naughton concurs, the newspaper can end the arrangement.

So far, none of the disputes have reached mediation. But there have been a number of touchy subjects that Richards says have sparked more than the usual editing discussions. He cited one story that questioned the Times' accounting practices, which sought to show a loss at the newspaper by including debt service for the entire Seattle Times Co. that also included newspapers in Maine and other Washington cities.

"When I started to put together a story, we had to go around a bit on it," Richards recalls. "They ran the story, but they argued every inch of the way."

Another story, in 2003, reported on a 1999 side deal the Times had cut with Hearst Newspapers, owners of the P-I. In exchange for $10 million, the deal allowed Hearst the right of first refusal on any sale of the Times' majority ownership in the paper. "They did it without informing the Justice Department," Richards notes. "It was clearly in violation of antitrust laws."

The freelancer also caused some angst for the Times when he reported that documents filed in 2004 by Knight Ridder, which owns a minority stake in the newspaper, noted that the Times had made $30 million in 2004 on real estate sales. The Times, which had claimed a $12 million loss, did not include the real estate revenue in its calculations.

"There was some fuss about that, it was heavily debated," Richards said of that story. "They were somewhat leery about it, but they ran it."

Boardman declined to comment on any specific stories. But when asked about Richards' approach, he said the reporter started off "more aggressive toward the Times to establish his credibility," adding that "all the stories that have been aggressive on The Seattle Times have been by us." Frank Blethen, Times publisher and majority owner of The Seattle Times Co., also would not comment on Richards' work other than to say, "we clearly have won kudos in the industry for it." Boardman thought it good enough to nominate him for a Pulitzer Prize in 2003.

"I'm kind of surprised it has gone on as long as it has," Richards said about the JOA story, adding that he had not discussed a contract extension yet. Neither Blethen nor Boardman would comment on any extension possibilities, although Boardman hinted that one might be needed: "When we started off with a three-year deal, I don't think we had the notion that [the story] would go beyond three years. But it appears it will."


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