Wednesday, March 18, 2009

With P-I Transformed, Watch for an Old-Fashioned Newspaper War Online in Seattle

To paraphrase a Mo Udall quip on politics, everything that needs to be said about the new online-only Seattle Post-Intelligencer has been said -- but not everybody has said it yet. So here's my two cents.
I would love to know the business model. In the unlikely event Hearst tells me, I'll discuss it. Meantime it looks as if Hearst and the P-I are eliminating expenses even more radically than I and others had speculated in discussing the pulling-the-plug-on-print scenario. Not only are they getting rid of paper, printing and distribution costs, they whacked seven-eighths of the newsroom as well. I'm guessing costs just went down 80 percent.
On the revenue side, the P-I will be building from a very modest base. Locally The Seattle Times ran the joint operating agency and advertising sales. Corporate parent Hearst may be able to contribute national advertising given its leading role in setting up the partnership of 700 newspapers with Yahoo and exploration of other high-tech ad placement options.
My former boss, Philadelphia Inquirer executive editor Gene Roberts, used to say it sometimes makes sense to start a new project before you are completely ready. That would make sense here -- assuming Hearst may have reached the go/no-go decision point only within the last several weeks. The P-I's site has a lead in monthly unique visitors over The Seattle Times (which had double the paid print circulation). So priority one is to hold onto that audience by continuing to publish online and, best case, build a wider, younger audience later.
Even if the site is not a money-maker for several years (my guess), if the losses are kept to a low roar, may make sense for Hearst and the company's surviving papers as a real-time test of what works and what doesn't in an online-only local site. Lots is up for grabs, including the ratio of news to non-news. (Keep sending those pet pictures, Seattle). Micro-payments are so last month; this week, aggressive experimentation is in.
Oddly, the death of the JOA will likely usher in a more intense and high-stakes competition in Seattle than before -- with the combatants duking it out in the fresh venue of online. Does the Times site -- with ties to an excellent (though smaller than it used to be) metro paper -- establish dominance? Or does the nimble, Web-savvy upstart better plug into the tastes of online users and the needs of advertisers? 
The P-I has already said it plans to stay competitive with breaking hard news. That is high on the list of what readers want. I'm enough of a traditionalist to be skeptical about how much news substance can be achieved with an eighth the professional staff the P-I fielded yesterday. But I will be watching carefully to see if Hearst's grand experiment proves me wrong.

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