Monday, March 16, 2009

Goodbyes and hellos

We all knew it was coming, didn't we? The Seattle Post-Intelligencer as of tomorrow will become the second major U.S. daily to stop publishing this year. It's especially painful because in many ways the P-I was the better of the two dailies serving the readers of Seattle.

But we don't really have the luxury to wallow in the pain of a journalistic voice being silenced. There's too much to do at all the other major metro newsrooms if we don't want to be writing our own obituaries. (And keep in mind that both the P-I and the recently deceased Rocky Mountain News were the weak partners in JOA agreements that made it unlikely they would have survived permanently, anyway. The changing business model and the recession merely precipitated their declines.)

Plus, there's a potential silver lining in this. The P-I is going to make a stab at inventing a new type of big city newsroom, working with an online-only platform. Quoting from the P-I's story today:

"Steven Swartz, president of Hearst Newspapers, said in the release the Web site 'isn't a newspaper online -- it's an effort to craft a new type of digital business with a robust, community news and information Web site at its core.'

He continued: 'The Web is first and foremost a community platform, so we'll be featuring new columns from prominent Seattle residents; more than 150 reader blogs, community databases and photo galleries. We'll also be linking to the great work of other Web sites and blogs in the community.'"

And from Colorado, word comes today that a bunch of the former Rocky journos are hoping to develop their own version of the same thing, called In Denver Times. In their case, they want to provide most news for free but will have a premium level of content for subscribers. If they don't get 50,000 subscribers to commit in the next five weeks, they'll pull the plug.

Good luck to both ventures. The rest of us in the industry should watch and learn and hope they succeed. The directions they're heading, regardless of the details in each case, are similar to ones we'll all be heading in some form before long. And for most of us -- unlike at the partially or fully shuttered newsrooms in Seattle and Denver -- that doesn't have to be a terrible thing.

While I wish both ventures well, I do worry about their business prospects. The journalists have their hearts in the right place, but it will be difficult to sell ads and develop a competent (and self-sustaining) business model from scratch. Which is basically what they need to do.

Both are leaving JOAs that largely gutted their own abilities to sell advertising. Even if ads don't make up as much of the going-forward revenue as in the past, they'll presumably want some level of ad money. Yet they'll be out there as newbies competing against their former reps in the sales trenches. Tough way to start a new venture in the best of times. And these times, needless to say, ain't so good to start with.

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