It’s only natural for newspaper people to think in a formula-driven, routine-driven manner. It’s how they’ve gotten their product out every day these past decades.
Inventing new products/services for the new media age takes a different kind of thinking. A lot of people are trying to retrain newspaper people into this new way. They include the Next Newsroom Project, Brandon Mendelson, Mark Potts, Alan Mutter, Steve Outing, Philip Meyer, Jane Stevens, Dan Vigil, Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky, my pal Paul Andrews, and ex-Microsoftie Michael Kinsley.
These folks have a consensus on many points. For instance, they all believe online news is both more populist and more niche-market than print news.
They disagree on by-the-slice or “micropayment” systems for news sites. Some believe they’d probably be more trouble than they’d be worth. Others, including Andrews, believe a workable scheme for subscriptions or one-shot purchases can be figured out; it’ll just take a little ingenuity.
As per the local situation with the endangered Post-Intelligencer, we’re talking about three scenarios here:
1) Preserving both the print and online P-I under new ownership, with the goal of making the combined operation self-supporting or close to it;
2) Preserving seattlepi.com alone, either under Hearst or new management;
3) Starting one or more all-new, all-online info ventures.
A lot of the local community talk this past month has concerned option 3, the only one that could proceed no matter what Hearst chooses to do.
Unlike a lot of folks in this conversation, I believe option 1 is both preferable and possible.
But it’ll take new ownership willing and able to shoulder continuing losses while evolving the paper and the Web site into new models. These models may or may not include online subscriptions or per-story payments. They may or may not include .pdf files or downloads for “e-ink” readers such as Amazon’s Kindle.
They will include many of the steps the P-I’s already begun—staff and freelance blogs, other online-only content, community outreach, all-day site updates.
I’d revise or dump the joint operating agreement with the Seattle Times, a company that’s recently been proven lousy at generating ad revenue.
But I’d keep a printed paper, every damn day. A print product adds brand value to the Web property. It enables many kinds of combo ad and sponsorship deals. It keeps the P-I tangibly visible in stores, restaurants, buses, and street corners. And there’s still money to be made in print ads and inserts.
But the online dog would wag the print tail.
The site would have the full coverage and more, from a professional reporting team plus stringers and community bloggers.
The paper would be a compact-sized digest (perhaps free, perhaps without home delivery). It would offer the key pieces of the Web site’s coverage, for those readers who still prefer print. This would bring the print product at least closer to profitability, keeping the newsroom more-or-less intact while the quest for an optimal online business model continues.
As we mentioned on Monday, part of the key to holding a loyal online audience (and, potentially, commanding higher online ad rates) is to create a more direct, more honest relationship with that audience. Among other things, it means offering material people really want to know about.
The sports, business, arts, and lifestyle departments already offer plenty of that. There are people who really want to know about the new Seahawks coach, or about who’s performing in the clubs tonight, or about Starbucks’ latest marketing gimmick.
The “general news” section needs to become just as needed.
And it can.
The national success of Huffington Post, Talking Points Memo, Daily Kos, and their brethren show that politics, economics, and similarly mundane topics can draw and keep enthralled audiences, if they’re presented by writers who can tell compelling stories.
Again, the P-I, with its continuing heritage of oldtime Hearstian populism, usually has more compelling local news content than the Times. The latter remains stuck in its longtime “what the Chamber of Commerce wants to tell you” mode of operation.
Here’s my list of what should be the essential reporting beats of any major local news operation, with or without the P-I brand. Some of them might be outsourceable to freelancers. Some of them might be doubled-up (one person servicing two or more beats). Your own idealized local newsroom might swap out some of these assignments for others:
- City government
- County government
- State government
- Seattle neighborhoods
- The region (Eastside, south end, north end)
- K-12 education
- Higher education
- Political columnists (2)
- Human interest columnists (2)
- Investigative unit (2)
- Breaking news/general assignment (at least 2)
- Opinion editor/columnist
- Forums/comments editor
- Editorial cartoonist
- Real estate
- General assignment
- Pop music
- Visual art
- Calendars/general assignment
- Editor (and syndicated-features buyer)
- Editor/columnist (2)
- UW football
- Men’s college basketball
- Women’s college basketball/Storm
- High school sports
- Sounders/general assignment
- Participant sports/outdoor recreation
And, of course, there’d be ad sellers (all of whom would work on both print and online ads), IT people, admin staff, designers, a few photographers (though reporters would also be equipped with digicams), and, yes, copy editors.
This scheme would preserve at least half of today’s P-I staff positions. That’s a lot more than what some observers believe is feasible.
But this particular concept is about holding the line, preserving the ongoing production of first-level, relevant local information while developing a new business model to support it.
And who’s going to do this?
My amateur number-crunching skills tell me this plan could cut the P-I’s losses within a year, from more than $1 million a month to less than $300,000. This shortfall should drop further as new revenue sources develop. (These might include online section sponsorships, paid access to investment databases, direct online sales of merchandise and event tickets, and, eventually, paid online subscriptions.)
But it’ll lose money before it makes money. Like any new or reinvented business venture.
It would probably take more than one investor to shoulder this. (Or, if the nonprofit route’s chosen, more than one donor.)
We’ll need a coalition of the local mighty and the local good. People closer to the P-I than I are already trolling some of these still-rich people.
But there’s one name I’d especially troll for if I were them.
It’s a guy who’s currently in the business of charging for content. Digital content. Verbal digital content. Ephemeral, periodical, verbal digital content.
Don’t call me, Mr. Bezos. You should contact Roger Oglesby direct.