A couple of years ago, a newspaper mogul I know took to calling the Hearst Corp. a born-again newspaper company after the company spent billions to solidify its grip on the daily markets in Houston and San Francisco and purchased an interest in William Dean Singleton's Media News chain.
But Hearst lost its regained faith faster than it acquired it. Today, the media conglomerate made good on its threat to convert its 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer to a Web-only operation, and it plans to fold or sell its hugely unprofitable San Francisco Chronicle unless it wins the concessions from workers that it has demanded.
Everybody knows why newspapers are failing—the Web-based advertising revolution, changes in news consumption, the joint operating agreements that kept dying newspapers on life support, the high costs of printing and trucking, changes in commuting patterns, aging readership, migration of readers to the suburbs, etc.—so there's no reason to conduct a complete autopsy.
Instead of lamenting the death of the P-I—which I can't do even though I read it regularly during my four-year stay in Seattle at the end of the century—let's brainstorm a little about what sort of news site the surviving SeattlePI.com might become. Blogger Alan D. Mutter got there last week with an exhaustive memo advising the new P-I not to replicate the old print edition, to be different, to cop an attitude, to crib liberally (especially from its surviving JOA partner, the Seattle Times), to go hyper-local, take risks, and to create premium content that can be sold to readers.
According to the New York Times story, the new P-I will have a news staff of 20 instead of the 165 of its print edition. Supplementing the small staff's output will be unpaid local bloggers, content from Hearst's magazine division, and columns by prominent citizens—"Norm Rice, a former Seattle mayor, and his wife, Constance Rice; a congressman, Jim McDermott; Maria Goodloe-Johnson, who heads the city's public schools; and a former police chief, a former United States attorney, and two former governors," the New York Times reports. (That's me in the corner, losing my lunch.) One advantage SeattlePI.com has over Crosscut, an existing local-news site, is significant name recognition that generated 1.8 million unique visitors in February.
To give you a sense of scale, in late 2007 the P-I held the rank of the 19th most popular newspaper site in the country, and the Seattle Times site held the No. 17 spot. Not bad for the 14th-largest media market in the country.Crosscut's Chuck Taylor noted at the time that if you were to combine the sites' numbers, this Web colossus would rank No. 5 nationally, with a bigger Web presence than the Wall Street Journal, the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune.
In an addendum, Taylor acknowledged that Web traffic can't really be added together like that, but he made his point—Seattle, home to Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon, a good chunk of Boeing (which is now headquartered in Chicago), the University of Washington, and more, loves the Web, and the Web loves it back. According to a January piece in Forbes, Seattle is the nation's most wired city. Reflecting that Webified glory should be the new P-I's first task.
Although the name Hearst conjures dusty images of San Simeon, Marion Davies, and yellow journalism, the corporation has made a considerable investment in interactive media—something you wouldn't know automatically from looking at the company's newspaper sites. How about pouring some of the special sauce and expertise from those properties onto the P-I? And seriously, does anybody in Hearst's New York headquarters think that 20 paid editorial employees are going to be enough to maintain and build traffic? Come on, Hearst. Are you investing, or are you finding another slow way to kill the P-I? Send in the interactive cavalry! Everything the company learns in Seattle can be used at its other newspaper sites (the Chronicles in Houston and San Francisco, the Albany Times Union, the San Antonio Express-News, the Advocate in Stamford, and its many weeklies).
Users become habituated to Web sites that reward their habituation. One of the many reasons that the Drudge Report pulls so many users is that it's always changing. Compared with Drudge, the home pages of the New York Timesand the Washington Post move at a pace that would bore a tectonic plate. I once asked the editor of a top newspaper's Web site if he had to rely on his own home page or the Drudge Reportto stay on top of the news (breaking and otherwise), which would he pick? He said Drudge.