Online Journalism Experiment Begins in Seattle
When the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ceased publishing in print form this week, it marked the end of a 146-year era. It also marked the beginning of another, in which news is delivered online and news organizations make a real attempt to embrace the new media economy.
03/20/09 8:30 AM PT
This is how a major newspaper dies, and is reborn online, in real-time:
Shortly after 10 a.m. Pacific on Monday, I find out the fate of the 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer on -- where else -- Twitter. P-I "Big Blog" reporter Monica Guzman tweets the breaking news: "Publisher Roger Oglesby just announced in the P-I newsroom: Tomorrow will be our last print edition, but seattlepi.com will live on." Guzman's 21st-century bulletin immediately gets re-tweeted by others in the Seattle media scene.
The NBC affiliate's Web site, King5.com, picks up the story a few minutes later. The headline gets on the Seattle P-I's own Web site, now the survivor of that newspaper's rich legacy, shortly after that. My apologies: I didn't think to check the Web site for the competing Seattle Times Web site -- which now has the city all to itself print-wise -- for the time being. But I don't doubt that it had the same Associated Press story that the P-I, King5 and others started running about 10:20 a.m.:
SEATTLE -- The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which has chronicled the news of the city since logs slid down its steep streets to the harbor and miners caroused in its bars before heading north to Alaska's gold fields, will print its final edition Tuesday.
The Seattle P-I had an extensive and dynamic blog section, as is to be expected in a city that champions citizen and neighborhood journalism. As you can imagine, the newspaper's own reporter/bloggers had other things on their minds; a staff of 150-plus was being whittled down to 20 -- all to cover a metro area encompassing 3.2 million people.
Reactions Roll In
So about 10:25 a.m., some of the first reaction to the news comes from -- again, where else -- the P-I reader's blogs, like Sue Frause's Whidbey Island Life. Frause posts a picture of the last Sunday newspaper on her dinner table with the headline "Goodbye to the P-I." Jessie Oleson, who writes the baking-oriented Cakespy reader blog writes: "I can't believe tomorrow will be the P-I's last print edition ... as much as I love online news, there is something so satisfying about having a physical paper with coffee (and cake) in the morning."
Meanwhile Guzman and others are posting Twitpic photos from inside the P-I newsroom: boxed-up items in cubicles, food and sodas for last-day commemorations, a picture of a picture of the P-I staff, taken a week ago. There's a photo of the last morning editorial meeting with this tweet from Guzman: "Mng. Ed. McCumber at last P-I budget meeting: 'We're gonna put out a great @$#% newspaper today. Any questions?'"
About 11 a.m., another reader blog, the Hop Scotch Blog focusing on Seattle events promotion, helps set the stage for the next challenging chapter in the P-I's life: "The song 'Hello Goodbye' pops into my head as we say goodbye to the print version of the Seattle P-I and say hello to the nation's largest daily newspaper to shift entirely to a digital platform. Although the entire Hop Scotch team is sad to see an end of a 146 year old legacy, we are excited that it is embracing technology and continuing to host the latest news and blogs for Seattle and beyond. So as we mourn the loss of a great Seattle printed publication, we welcome the transition of the paper to digital, and hope that the legacy of the Seattle P-I continues for years to come in its new platform."
The New (Improved?) Seattle P-I
I last spoke to Guzman in September for my column on the pros and cons of user comments in blogs and newspaper Web sites. The 26-year-old just started subscribing to the print version of the New York Times; now she's finding it a tad weird to see her own name in Tuesday's NYT story about the P-I's last day in print.
Just like Jan. 9, when Hearst executives told her newsroom that the P-I had to find a buyer in 60 days or possibly fold, if not go online only, Guzman had to report on what she was seeing via Twitter. "That day was kind of similar," she told me. "All eyes were on us, and suddenly tweets inside the newsroom were gold -- where people couldn't go and couldn't see. We became the news."
Yes, it felt weird to tweet about yourself, but "there's something about being on social media, just being comfortable with it, that makes it at least in my personal experience feel like you share certain things. It's a way to just put that feeling out there, to put an event out there. It's so weird, it's almost an obligation. I know not everybody can relate to that, but that combined with a reporter's instinct of giving the news -- you put those two things together and it kind of had to happen."
Guzman could very well be describing the mashup of journalism and technology that is giving the P-I its last chance to tell Seattle's story and maybe make some money in the process. SeattlePI.com's executive producer Michelle Nicolosi made it clear in her Monday letter to readers that the Web site -- with 4 million unique visitors a month -- is now a journalistic laboratory as much as it is a news destination. "Experiment a lot, fail fast," Nicolosi wrote. "The creation of seattlepi.com as a standalone digital news and information business is a great opportunity for us to try out many of the theories journalism professionals and academics have been throwing around for the past few years. ... We're going to break a lot of rules that newspaper Web sites stick to, and we are looking everywhere for efficiencies."
That means Guzman will be reporting as well as blogging; everybody shoots photos and video and gets to know the Web site's content management system very well. Guzman says core journalism values -- accuracy, objectivity, hard news, compelling storytelling -- must blend with the technologies. Maybe it's the passion of someone who's been in journalism for all of four years -- someone who's always had the Web as a storytelling tool -- but she has high hopes for the near term.
"What is the Internet if not the most perfect medium for storytellling? It can use all the senses -- tell it with video, tell it through audio, in words. That's the huge promise of the Internet. It may be threatening the business a lot but it's also doing some phenomenal things: being connected to the readership, tightening the relationship between reporter and reader and making collaborators of us all. I think what's happening is very exciting."
Rolling the Dice Online
Columnists from various corners of the mediaverse aren't sharing Guzman's enthusiasm. The numbers aren't in her favor, they say: 20 people to cover a metropolitan area ranked 15th in the nation? Online advertising only to replace subscriptions AND print ads, even if the latter two are on the wane? A corporate parent, Hearst, that's going to be patient enough with a Web-only enterprise?
There are some intangibles here that the naysayers might want to take into consideration, starting with the city itself -- Seattle, which prides itself on its literacy, its digital tradition and its explosion of neighborhood blogs. When you think about it, SeattlePI.com isn't the only journalistic petri dish around; there's the University of Washington, MyBallard.com, WestSeattleBlog. There are venture capitalists, software engineers, hungry entrepreneurs, startups aplenty; risk and experimentation are part of the landscape, along with two majestic mountain ranges and the space-age Space Needle.
And there are the recently unemployed Seattle P-I reporters who have either begun their own blogs or are working on business plans for them, says Guzman. "We need a lot of voices. We need a lot of people doing this. I think Seattle is a really fascinating place in that there are so many different voices, journalistic voices with their own niches, their own objectives, their own audiences popping up all over the place. That's not to say it's not happening in other places, but here it's happening in focused ways."
That's what makes it an exciting and scary time for Guzman; something is dying, maybe something's being born. Losing 146 years of institutional memory, journalistic poking and prodding and spotlight-shining is bad. It doesn't matter whether you've been in the business four years or 40, you know that sucks. Like a lot of other places in the country, experienced journalists are losing their jobs, and it's not because of a lack of quality or willingness to put in the hours. It's because a yesteryear business model is staggering into the new century.
"We can work on a model that starts small and grows organically and becomes profitable at every step," Guzman says, "and when it just keeps growing and growing, you can call those journalists who lost their jobs and say, 'come back, we've got it figured out now, come back.'"
TechNewsWorld columnist Renay San Miguel started his journalism career with his hometown newspaper in Texas in 1979. He moved to television in 1985, anchoring, producing and reporting in Austin, Dallas and San Francisco before joining CNBC as a technology correspondent from 1997 to 2000. Following a stint with CBS MarketWatch, which included filing tech stories for the CBS Early Show, San Miguel joined CNN Headline News in 2001 as an anchor/tech reporter. He also contributed digital content for CNN.com. After his 2007 departure from CNN, San Miguel founded Primo Media and now freelances in television/online reporting and media consultation.