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Seattle P-I going online-only: innovative idea or last resort?

Seattle P-I going online-only: innovative idea or last resort?

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer printed its last ever issue yesterday, 17 March 2009, and is looking at an online-only future. Parent company Hearst decided it could not afford to keep the paper open in its current form after it lost $14 million in 2008, and after trying and failing to sell it, they proceeded to stop the presses but keep the website. The P-I is not the first paper to make such a move, but it is by far the largest US publication so far. What does this closure mean for the paper and the people of Seattle, and what are the implications for the wider industry: will other papers follow suit?

The cost of keeping the Seattle P-I's website should be a fraction of the cost of printing the paper: Poynter's Rick Edmonds estimates costs have fallen by 80%. Staff numbers have been reduced from 165 to 20, including just one photographer, and the site will be less like that of a traditional newspaper and more like the Huffington Post, according to the New York Times, as it will have limited original reporting and consist largely of links, advice and commentary, with several local columnists. It will repackage some health and home material from Hearst's many magazines, and has about 150 unpaid bloggers who will continue to provide content. The original reporting will focus on more hard-hitting news such as government, spending and crime, said P-I executive producer Michelle Nicolosi.

Seattle will be left as a one-paper town: the Seattle Times is now the only major daily in the city and although it should benefit from no longer having competition from Hearst's paper, it will no longer be sharing printing, delivery, advertising and marketing expenses with the P-I, as it had been for more than 20 years. P-I subscribers will automatically start to receive the Times instead. It remains to be seen whether the paper will flourish or continue to lose money. The P-I's new most direct competition is a non-profit local news website focusing on the Northwest, CrossCut.com.

How should the web-only paper tackle the competition?

This huge change for the P-I can, and arguably should, be seen as an opportunity to revamp its site and be a front-runner in innovation. Online news leaves plenty of room for original development and possibilities for increased interaction with readers, personalisation options and linking are particularly relevant for local papers such as the P-I. It is "an adventure in journalism," according to columnist Joel Connelly. Slate editor Jack Shafer called upon Hearst to plunge into experimentation by sending in the "interactive cavalry," as everything that the publisher learns in Seattle can be used at its other newspaper sites. Examples he suggests are going hyperlocal, updating the site as much "as humanly possible," and to hire as many developers as they can. Rick Edmonds seems to be in agreement, writing that as long as losses are kept low, the P-I could be an effective "real-time test of what works and what doesn't in an online-only local site." And Nicolosi has promised that the paper will "experiment a lot, fail fast" with what is on the site: if something is not working they will cut it immediately and try something else.

Does going online-only make business sense?

The paper's online traffic is 1.8 million unique viewers per month and is usually more than its former rival/partner, the Seattle Times, which has considerably higher print circulation. And according to Forbes magazine in January, Seattle is the most broadband-connected US city: hence a place seemingly well suited for an online-only publication.

And online readership figures are high: according to the Project for Excellence in Journalism's State of the News Media in the US report just released, traditional media has not lost its audience, rather this audience is shifting online. The Pew Research Center reported at the beginning of the year that the Internet had overtaken print as a primary news source in the US for the first time. This trend is not just American: British papers reported record online readership in January: with the Guardian website boasting almost 30 million unique viewers.

Several other smaller publications have made the switch to online-only over the past few months. The most well-known is the Christian Science Monitor, which announced its intention to cut its daily print edition in October 2008, though it will not actually make the conversion until April 1 this year. The CSM reasoned that its web product had a far wider reach than its print paper, particularly due to its international audience, and that producing the print publication would become untenable as the Christian Science church was preparing to stop its subsidisation. Others include the Monitor in Canada, and the Kansas City Kansan, San Francisco's AsianWeek, Hoy Nueva York and Wisconsin's The Capital Times in the US: all for financial reasons.

The State of the News Media report, however, argues that it does not currently make sense for suffering papers to "kill their print editions and go online-only" as print still commands "premium ad pricing" and US papers still make roughly 90% of their revenue from print and the average cost of printing and delivering the printed paper is 40% of costs. So, the report believes, why would you cut almost all your revenue to save less then half your costs?

Is online-only the future of news?

Arguably, despite many people's love of print, online is the future of news: how distant a future, it is difficult to say. But the vital, million-dollar question remains: how to actually make enough money out of all these online readers in order to support good quality, in-depth reporting? Nicolosi said that she thinks it is "possible to run an online-only local news site that serves a city's readers well while turning a profit" and that "a digital news product is a viable solution for cities whose papers can no longer afford to operate." She seems to be convinced that the paper will make money online, but gives no indication of how this will happen. With the traditional ad-based business model proving less and less effective as online advertising prices fall, will the P-I come up with an innovative strategy? One of the major criticisms of the industry in the State of the News Media report was the lack of innovation in the sector in terms of business models. Nicolosi has assured readers that she is willing to try out new things on the site, but will the paper be as experimental in terms of business models?

For an online-only operation, the incentive to try to make money from Internet readers is surely greater than for a print publication with a website. And if the P-I does manage to find a way to support itself, whether through being successful enough to generate sufficient advertising revenue, or by adopting some kind of paid content system, the model will undoubtedly be looked at very carefully by other suffering papers around the world.



Emma Goodman


2009-03-18 11:27

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