Update: It’s offical, at very least, the print P-I will be shut down.
Supposedly the P-I is going to be shut down in a month or so. The rumor goes something like this: The Hearst Corp, owner of the P-I, was waiting for the Seattle Times, owned by the Blethen family and the McClatchy Group, to go out of business before making a decision on the fate of the P-I. It looked pretty certain the Times would go under, but recently Frank Blethen seems to have secured some sort of agreement with local investors to turn the paper into a non-profit. At this point, Hearst had no reason to keep the P-I around, so they have decided to shut down shop.
If you want to read what I have to say about the newspaper business and the P-I shut down, it’s below the fold.
Newspapers obviously have a business model that no longer works, and their decline is only being hastened by the tail-spinning economy. The internet, cable news and even video game consoles are blamed for declining readership, ad revenues and the lack of a future for the newspaper business. Today, most papers are worth less than the land they occupy, and the P-I rents its offices. Even the New York Times, the nation’s “paper of record”, is having massive financial problems. The common quip is that if newspapers had just embraced the Internet, they could have been successful in the digital age, but there’s little evidence that they haven’t embraced the web and that if they had it could have saved them. I remember reading the New York Times on the web back in the mid-nineties, long before blogs stole the news readers or Craigslist took the want-ad listings. NYTimes.com is one of the best, most informative sites on the Interent. Even if the New York Times had invented Craigslist, who is partially blamed for the decline of want-ad money for newspapers, they probably still would have been in a dismal financial position.
The problem for newspapers as a business stems from the fact that the paper was always an ad-delivery mechanism, and the news room was just a reason for people to look at the ads. Running a news room, and paying smart people to research and write news articles in a timely fashion is expensive. Ad revenue from Internet readership can’t pay enough money to have a staff do this work full-time. I don’t know for sure, but I bet Craigslist makes less money than just a single paper’s want-ad business did fifteen years ago. It’s hard to make money from ads on the web. Even with a pretty good readership, this blog can’t pay for its hosting costs, and forget paying a salary to any of the writers. We do it on a volunteer basis, and all have jobs to pay our bills. We’re happy with that situation, and while maybe we can compete with the sort of lazy reporting that you sometimes read in newspaper, we could never compete with the deep-research exposé reporting or in-depth analysis a newspaper is capable of doing.
If the Seattle Times does become a non-profit, they would be on the forefront of newspapers venturing into new business models. This itself concerns me not just because the Times is the worse of the two papers, but because a newspaper funded by private donations could easily become a mouthpiece for special interests. It’s not hard to imagine a non-profit Seattle Times writing biased articles about whoever their biggest donors were, imagine the headline “Home Town Seattle Hero Paul Allen Builds for the Future Of Our Great City”. And even if they somehow managed to take up an NPR-type model with public-donations, the quantity of the reporting isn’t like to be as big as before. A lot of issues that we have seen covered by newspapers will be left to individuals on blogs to cover. As we have seen the recent Sound Transit tax issue, you don’t always get conclusive facts when average citizens try to be journalists.
I wouldn’t want to live in a city with no newspapers; there’s something to be said for unbiased, in-depth, broad-audience journalism. Its not obvious today that either paper will be here in ten years. If newspapers are to survive, they aren’t going to look a lot like they do today. I just hope they don’t look a lot like blogs like this one with an agenda or like pure opinion sites like Crosscut. Sadly, I suspect they may.