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.

20 Replies to “Not Transit Related: P-I News is Bad News”

  1. I’m not worried about the demise of newspapers as newspapers. That’s confusing the medium with the message. The problem is the potential demise of reporting, particularly of the local and regional variety. That’s very worrisome.

    TV news organizations have already cut their reporting budgets to the bone, and most blogs just borrow the reporting from TV or newspapers. For blogs to survive in the future, someone will have to come up with a new business model to support reporting of every kind, from daily news to in-depth investigative journalism.

    1. We do some real reporting and investigation here, too and we’d survive without happily without newspapers to link to. In fact, our readership would likely go way up. But we have an audience in mind and a agenda.

    2. We’re starting to see bloggers be allowed into press rooms on almost the same terms as real journalists, on a very very limited basis in select areas.

      But either everyone is going to need to become a blogger, or cooperatives of some kind are going to end up being formed, to report local and national news with any competency.

      I would hope, if news ends up going to a publicly-funded model, it doesn’t infringe on First Amendment rights or stifle criticism of the government. We could end up seeing the American equivalent of the BBC or CBC arise in this country.

      1. A publically funded model won’t keep local news in a good state. Sure, the American-equivalent BBC could have a news desk in Seattle, but would they be able to cover north highline annexation or light rail or whatever?

        I doubt it.

  2. I think the public radio model could work. Hey, it works for public radio. I could even imagine NPR branching off a print/web edition to provide in-depth stories that can’t be done in a radio or television format. As for high-quality in-depth reporting, I’d give Nova, Bill Moyers Journal*, or Democracy Now as high of marks as most paper stories.

    Regarding the fear that a non-profit model could be more biased or corrupt than a privately funded model: are you serious?

    *Ah, Now with Bill Moyers was so good before the Bush administration stepped in and fired him. Did you know our president can do that?

  3. Couple of things:

    1) Remember the modern model of supposedly “unbiased” journalism in the US is a recent invention. For most of their history newspapers have been rabidly partisan and made no bones about pushing the agenda of their owners. In many parts of the world papers still do this.

    It wasn’t all so bad though, in addition to various business interests owning papers, so did political parties, unions, and various civic and social organizations. The newspaper was essentially their mouthpiece.

    2) Similar to the above the idea of a ad supported newspaper is relatively new as well, especially one that gets most of its revenue from classified ads. While newspapers published with the idea of making money, this wasn’t always the case. Furthermore paid readership used to account for much more of a papers revenue. However papers in those days were a few pages only at most and operated with a far smaller editorial and reporting staff than the typical big-city daily does today.

  4. From that article, you can see they get 4 million uninque vistors to the website. That’s a lot more than ever bought a paper edition.

    1. Except those hits haven’t turned into $. There was a report last year, no time to Google it, about how the online presence of newspaper draw in only 1/3rd of the ad revenue than the equivalent print version.

  5. I think are entering a golden age of citizen journalism. The newspaper is printing press technology, but today we have blogs. High quality issue-based or neighborhood blogs have become common; they cover more stories than newspapers ever could, and often with better facts and more depth because they actually care about every story they post. I don’t know what the funding model will be, but some like http://westseattleblog.com/ are certainly making a go of it.

  6. There is a substantial public good to be had from paying highly trained very talented professional investigative reporters and anchors to do original research and reporting. Fundamentally, news reporting is a public good, and a strong case can be made to have it publicly funded.

    The critical problem is the loss of independence that can come with public funding, but systems can be set up that create a wall of separation between the newsroom and the government. Matt the Engineer makes a good point though, namely that the existing model is far from unbiased. One need only look at this blog’s opinion of the Seattle Times coverage of Sound Transit to prove this point.

    The BBC and NPR, both of which receive public money, actually do a lot of really good reporting and are often critical of their government sponsors.

    A public model, in which public funds are available to any organization that does news reporting could work really well. The key is that the money needs to be available to a wide range of reporting organizations, not just a single one, and that the money must be tied to readership and separated from political meddling.

  7. That’s a good point Tony, but if the money is tied to readership, I think the result will be similar to the current state of the blogs; people who read what they want to read and really have no clue as to what other people are reading and/or thinking about, creating a lack of common informational ground to discuss.

    Don’t get me wrong, we are well on our way to that situation already, but having journalists around the world reporting on things that we otherwise wouldn’t know about (not just disasters, but economics, politics, agreements, wars, etc.) is insanely expensive. No blog I know of is going to send foreign correspondents to Georgia (former USSR Georgia), or Kenya, or anywhere else.

    I really hate the big news outfits at times, but I know that without them, and a viable alternative model for sending reporters out to places we otherwise wouldn’t know about, we will be informationally impoverished.

    I have no answers, but keeping alive businesses that actually do send reporters around the world seems pretty important, and having government funded news organizations is cool on the one hand, but scary on the other. We need gadflies, and we need them to have enough money to do their job. News organizations these days are doing a poor job in many respects, but it is really depressing to think that no one will be around to fund the reporters if things continue to go down the drain financially for them. What we have isn’t great, but having no reporting due to lack of funding would be a lot worse.

    1. Agreed, but one-city papers aren’t sending reporters to Kenya either, plus they laid off most of the “highly trained very talented professional investigative reporters” already. There is nothing to prevent competitive national and regional news markets with blogs providing most local coverage.

  8. Actually, so-called “unbiased” journalism tends to have a centre-right bias. Part of the reason cities no longer have multiple newspapers is becuase of the 20th Century invention of “objective” reporting. Newspapers would be more lively if we went back to the days when they were *openly* biased. Imagine Seattle with newspapers that were clearly Democratic, Republican, Green, Communist, neo-Nazi, Cascadian Independence, and Freedom Socialist! The competition would actually make newspapers exciting again, and people would actually learn to *compare* points of view!!!!

    1. Is this a serious suggestion? I mean, it’s more than just fun and games sometimes. Look at Spanish-American war for example. The editorial page should express views.

      1. Yes it was a serious suggestion. There is *no* such thing as “unbiased” journalism. The movement away from openly biased journalism in the 1920s didn’t make papers truly “fair and balanced”, rather it introuced a universal, bland, lowest-common-denominator centre-right bias. Many cities had four or more newspapers before that, but with “objective” journalism, they became all the same. At that point there was no reason for so many, which is why even a two-newspaper town is a rarity nowadays.
        Bias isn’t bad if it’s open and above-board. Most European newspapers openly favour one political party or another. That’s what keeps the competition going. Using war as an example, what if one paper was for the war in Iraq and one was against? Wouldn’t readers likely have better access to information than if there’s just one paper that tries to be neutral? You might think a neo-Nazi paper is disgusting, but wouldn’t it be worse if someone with those views worked for the “objective” Seattle Times and subtly slipped Nazi propaganda into so-called “unbiased” articles?

    2. I disagree that newspapers aren’t exciting or interesting. more people read the pi today than have ever read it before. they just caan’t make money

  9. As someone trying to break into the media business …… STILL (sigh stupid economy) this hits close to home. Granted, I’m interested in radio but the situation is nearly the same. New technology is drawing attention away (internet, mp3 players, other media) and instead of investing in the product and changing with the times companies are cutting jobs, killing all aspects of localism, and giving consumers absolutely NOTHING that they can’t get elsewhere.

    Newspapers, like radio, have done themselves no favors by taking a long time to adapt. It is true that most papers have had sites, even good sites for quite some time, but newspapers in the 90’s made very few steps to make these sites profitable. They were merely an almost-obligatory extension of the paper, simply to hopefully catch the attention of the online reader who may be thinking about going elsewhere. Papers spent very little time investing in making these sites profitable, and now they need them to be their main source of revenue. I just took a gander at the P-Is homepage and there is still almost no advertising. WHY? Come up with creative and innovative ways to get those ads on that page more visibly and more often. If they do this they can probably survive.

    I was talking to a friend about this yesterday who is also making a run at a radio career. We came to the consensus (although in fairness without hard numbers to back it up) that if the PI cut the print side of the business, became a net-only paper, and buckled down on generating online revenue, they could probably be profitable. Cutting the print business would eliminate A LOT of overhead. The printing facilities, the delivery people, those annoying circulation salespeople; they could cut down on quite a bit of spending. Could this still make them enough money to survive? Like I said, I don’t have the numbers, but I really believe that if they made some changes they could survive this way.

    As for the unbiased media thing; sorry but the media has been biased for a very long time. A friend of mine was fired some time ago from a very prominent media job in Seattle supposedly because he made a passing joke about an advertiser. He didn’t attack them or go on some sort of crusade against them, it was just a casual comment that caused the company to feel that the relationship with the client was threatened. If you work in the media, you better know who your sponsors are and NEVER say anything slightly negative about them. Granted, this wasn’t a news story, but you better believe that same thing happens if you report something negative about one or your advertisers. It happens now, and it will always happen as long as there is someone keeping track of who is giving them the money. This doesn’t make it right but that is how it is. To be fair, I’m sure it doesn’t happen like that 100% of the time, but believe me t happens.

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