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.
So, the first assignment I'd give the P-I'shome page would be to have it change as many times an hour as humanly possible. Be there with something new every time somebody at a screen wants to have a media moment. Make the site pulse like a good news-radio station, with updates updating the updates from the news wires. Satisfy the readers' need to know but also convey to them that every story is ongoing. (Developing! as Drudge would put it.) Follow the news. Make the news. Be the news!
Next, I'd have the P-I hire as many news-savvy developers as they can. Drop them into "the newsroom," but call them reporters. I'd also have the site hire (and retain) reporters who want to be developers and allow them make the site's pages their sandbox. Allow them to make as many mistakes as they want as long as the mistakes aren't mis-renderings of the facts.
After that, order the kidnapping of Adrian Holovaty, the sultan of microlocal. Holovaty has already mapped Seattle in his EveryBlock site. Put the man in chains and leave him there until he produces an atom-by-atom replica of the Seattle area for the P-I to exploit. Raid the city's two alternative weeklies—the Seattle Weekly and the Stranger—for editorial talent.
Avoid the grandiose, abstract promises that usually accompany a Web launch. Except for Muhammad Ali, nobody has ever delivered on their self-hype. Don't tout user-generated content unless you know what all that user-generated content is supposed to accomplish. (In other words, unless the prominent citizens recruited to write blogs can really write, spike them.) And please, please, please, SeattlePI.com, find a frontman or -woman with a pulse who can convey a sense of terror and discovery. Today's column introducing the new SeattlePI.com by its top hand, Executive Producer Michelle Nicolosi, reads like an advertisement for embalming fluid. Nicolosi writes:
Bottom line: We're going to focus on what readers are telling us they want and on what makes SeattlePI.com essential and unique—within the context of our local news mission, of course.
If the P-I delivers on her vision, it's doomed.
I got this itch that only my Twitter can reach. Send your best ideas for the P-I to email@example.com, and I'll amend this column with them. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)