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Newspapers watching Seattle to see if digital only will save them

Newspapers Watching Seattle

Newspapers Watching Seattle

The long beloved paper version of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer may be gone, but Monica Guzman will continue blogging about Seattle news “that’s all the buzz” for the digital-only edition. SeattlePI.com employs 20 staffers, compared to 170 at the print newspaper. On Monday, as Guzman watched veteran journalists depart forever, the 26-year-old said continuing without their in-depth knowledge of Seattle “is a little scary.” Some might say it’s even scarier that newspaper titans are watching Seattle to see if they can duplicate it as the “newspaper” of the future.

The P-I, with a former circulation of 117,000, is the largest American daily so far to move all of its operations to online only. After losing $14 million in 2008, the Hearst Corporation put Seattle’s oldest paper up for sale for in January. When a buyer didn’t emerge, Monday became the last day for print at the 146-year-old P-I.

At SeattlePI.com, there are no traditional editors, reporters, or even content producers with specific duties like at other Web sites. Instead, staffers share the jobs of multimedia creation, writing, editing, picture taking, and video shooting and production.

But the focus will not only be hyper local. Outside content will abound, featuring guest contributors, Hearst writers from other news outlets, Hearst magazine articles and even material and links to competing Web sites.

It’s a content philosophy built around the idea that visitors will be willing to pay for content, as long as they can find anything from anywhere. An internal Hearst memo to the 20 staffers shows the marching orders:

–“Crib liberally” from the city’s surviving print newspaper, the Seattle Times.
–“Cop an attitude.”
–“Go hyper local.”
–“Take risks.”
–“Constantly create premium content readers will buy.”

“Pay to visit” is also being closely watched in Colorado, where former staffers of the defunct Rocky Mountain News are attempting to start InDenverTimes.com. The business plan calls for 50,000 pledged subscribers willing to pay $4.99 a month. Some content would be free, paid advertising would also be featured, and paying visitors would be able to access columns, interactive features, feeds to mobile devices and customizable content.

It’s no shock that the rest of the newspaper industry will be watching Seattle and Denver. Newspaper ad revenue has dropped one-third since 2005, and is expected to sink 21 percent more in 2009.

Papers are starting to believe that charging for Web content may be part of the solution to stop the bleeding from printing on paper. The New York Times, 18 months after it ceased charging for content, is reconsidering the option; Newsday is looking at the model as well. And if a buyer can’t be found for their failing San Francisco Chronicle, or if as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi suggests the Chronicle should merge with other San Francisco papers, it’s safe to bet Hearst will consider duplicating Seattle.

Back in Seattle, the official line from Hearst is that SeattlePI.com will “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.”

Slate’s Jack Shafer believes the news Web site is “doomed” if that’s really the case. He thinks 20 staffers aren’t enough to maintain daily operations and build traffic. He asks 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).”

Even if the SeattlePI.com succeeds financially, former P-I investigative reporter Ruth Teichroebit said the news Web site will never match the print edition’s coverage of those who need it the most, the world’s underdogs. “Those with the least voice in society are losing access to another part of the mainstream media.”

–Michael Blankenheim

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