My plan for the Seattle PI (Part I)

On Friday, the Hearst Corporation announced that it was putting the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the older of Seattle’s two daily papers, up for sale.  If a buyer is not found within 60 days (57 and counting…) then the paper will cease its print production.  The prospects of finding a buyer, according to analysts, is slim and most predict – though the option to continue on the web is being considered – that by the end of March the paper will no longer exist.

I was born and raised in Seattle and have read the Seattle PI every day for probably 20 years.  I remained a subscriber when I moved away from home to go to college, receiving the paper via snail mail a few days late, but still reading it cover to cover.  When the PI found its way online, I made logging on a part of my morning reading routine (along with a number of other papers, including a mix of national papers and local/regional papers from places I have lived, worked, or have other interests).  And for the record, though I no longer subscribe — and thus don’t contribute directly to the bottom line of the paper — I do occasionally click on the ads, in part because I appreciate the costs and challenges of running a newspaper, and in part because every now and then I actually see an ad that suggests an event or product I might be interested in.

I love of news and information.  It is the foundation of my professional life and a core part of my personality.  And a big reason for that love is because of the role the Seattle PI has played in my life.

The Seattle PI may not be the best newspaper in the nation, but it has always provided me access and understanding to the issues and happenings in the Pacific Northwest. The PI has dutifully played the role of government watchdog, sports analyst, citizen advocate, cultural critic, and community champion.  When Seattle faced boom times – the introduction of grunge music, the rise of Microsoft and Starbucks, a record number of wins for the Mariners and spots in the NBA Finals and Super Bowl by the Sonics and Seahawks respectively (all these events are just in my lifetime as a reader, by the way) – the PI was there.  When Seattle was less fortunate — an earthquake, the slumping economy, paralyzing weather, election controversies, horrific crimes, the Sonics moving to Oklahoma City – the PI was there.  The paper has won awards.  And most importantly it has employed hard-working writers, editors, production and delivery people, and more who are committed to their community.

If, or perhaps when, the Seattle PI goes under, Seattle would be left with just one daily newspaper, the Seattle Times.  As good as the Times is (I read both the Times and the PI daily, and their coverage of local issues is sufficiently different – FYI), the PI’s demise would leave a hole in Seattle that will be very difficult to fill. This is true for any city that loses, or experiences a significant reduction in the quality of its local journalism – the people of Detroit, Denver, and Minneapolis are beginning to know what I am talking about – and even more by cities that have only one daily paper.  Which is why we can’t let it die.

As PI columnist Art Thiel wrote this morning “The industry, having given itself away for free for years on the Internet to the point of bankruptcy, is desperate for a new way of doing business. If ever there were a place where private wealth, invention, technology, emergency, opportunity and desire are in abundance for a new idea, it is here, now.”   So I say, let’s get to work.

I want to own, and manage, the Seattle PI.  I’m totally serious.  I believe, with help, that I can make the PI profitable again while enhancing the quality of the journalistic product that is delivered each day to the residents of Seattle.  This week, I’ll be sharing my ideas for how the PI, and newspapers everywhere, can succeed.

My plan has four parts:

Part I: More and better local news content. The job of a local newspapers is to cover local issues.  Newspapers are spending too much time – and column inches, and resources – presenting coverage of national and international issues when that coverage is available elsewhere.  A renewed focus on issues that impact the local community will give news consumers in Seattle, and wherever local papers are struggling, a reason to read again.

Part II: Context is the key.  The concept of exclusivity in news has disappeared — you can now read/watch/listen to what is happening in the world from a million different sources, both journalistic and non-journalistic in nature, and readers no longer rely on newspapers alone for finding out what is happening in the world.  What readers do still rely on newspapers for is context — how an issue is impacting their local community and what it means to them personally .  Thus, the way newspapers are written much change — instead of reporting what has happened, the job of newspapers must become explaining why, how, and what impact an event will have.  Local newspapers must give their reads tools to understand and apply the knowledge they share.

Part III: Making money. There is no single revenue model that will support the newspapers business on its own, and the combination of subscriptions and advertising combined have proven to not be enough.  That doesn’t mean that those models are completely broken, but it does mean they need to be improved and the revenue options for newspapers need to be diversified.  First, you have to improve on the quality of the models that exist, and ensure a high level of quality in any new models you explore.  That has been missing for too long, particularly in advertising.  Second, you to look at all the ways to make money in the news space — my list includes selling content and advertising, providing research and insights, aggregating and syndicating everything, and helping support the news – and figure out what the balance will be going forward (and how often, and what triggers, it changing).

Part IV: An increased role for local media in the community. Finally, the role of newspapers as a whole should not be limited to simply telling the community what is happening.  Calling for change is not enough in today’s world; you have to roll up your sleeves and get involved as well.  The role of newspapers, and local media in general, will increasingly be tied to the management of communities, and that close relationship between the issues that are covered and how those issues are managed will help to grow an even greater loyalty among readers, and build the next generation of newspaper subscribers in the process.

I am only one person, so my ideas are limited, and I assure that I am biased in favor of certain areas where I have personal experience and perspective.  That doesn’t mean my plan won’t work, but it does mean there is lots of room for growth and improvement.  Even if I had a perfect plan on my own, I don’t have the kind of funds needed to buy the paper.  So, as I share my plan, I ask for your help.  Help make my ideas better, and ensure that I am addressing the core issues and answering the right questions.   Challenge me.  Hold me accountable.  Contribute your own thoughts.  Identify yourself, or introduce me to people who are interested in finding new, successful models for newspapers — or who might want to team up to save the PI.

Art Thiel wrote “If there is a metro area where the level of education, civic engagement and computer literacy can buck the tide, it is [in Seattle]… For a town that had a misguided national rep as a bunch of passive granola eaters content with moss and vistas, civic disputation is high art. To give forum to all the arguments about world’s fairs, nuclear power, salmon, stadiums, viaducts and naked bicyclists, Seattle deserved 10 daily newspapers.”  I agree.

For now, let’s focus on saving just one – the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (and showing the rest of the newspaper industry how it can be done in the process).

More tomorrow.

Brian Reich

Brian Reich

Brian is Managing Director of little m media which provides strategic guidance and support to organizations around the use of the internet and technology to facilitate communications, engagement, education, and mobilization.

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  • I love your idea. I would like to contribute to your content. Let me know how. I teach Social Media at UCLA, I consult, write, speak.

    Beverly Macy

  • Reich, you’re right about the content. I’d like to ad : focus on your core audience (the 55+ for the print) and rethink you’re strategy for the digital. The same content, but online, is not going to do the job. If I don’t like Mozart on vinyl, I don’t like him on CD or iTunes.

    In term of advertising, in average newspapers reach 7% of the local businesses. There is room to improve. Talk to them. Try to know what they are trying to achieve. Develop products and services that help them to sell.

    Involve the community to be able to deliver hyper local news. I develop this idea on my blog: http://mediacafe.blogspot.com/2009/01/local-newsroom-1-70-to-80-of-french.html

    70% to 80% of the content of a French local newspaper is written by amateurs journalists (they call them “correspondents”). Why can’t we do the same in the US? If you read the comments, there are interesting figures like : 1 pro journalist for 4 to 10 amateurs, how amateurs are paid and how much, etc.

  • Calisha

    I was just having this conversation a couple of weeks ago with a friend. I think newspapers can survive the internet, they were able to adapt to a world with a television in every room and radios. The question is how. I think the future is definitely in localized and community reporting. CNN is even getting on board with its IReport arm. The Examiner also has a number of localized websites written by aspiring writers and bloggers who apply to cover a particular beat. I’m not sure yet how to bring those things to print media, but I definitely think the answers lie with localized and community reporting.

    The Washington Post has an Express paper it puts out daily in addition to its larger paper. The Express is read by those of us who take public transportation mostly. It actually works well. Some of the stories are garbage and celebrity gossip, but I look forward to reading the blurbs from local blogs or stories about local news. I also look forward to seeing my “paper man” at the metro every day and reading shortened versions of the larger articles I will later look up on the web.

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