Editor's note: This is the fifth of a series of articles on the financial crisis facing The Seattle Times. Below are additional thoughts by Ross Anderson, Jean Godden, Mark Matassa, and Peter Lewis.
Until the strike of 2000-01, I fully expected to retire from The Seattle Times. I really loved it. Though it was far from perfect, the editors in the latter decades of the 20th century assembled an impressive roster of talent. I came of age surrounded by some of the giants of Seattle journalism, starting work there at age 27 in 1985 and leaving as a seasoned 43-year-old in 2001. It was wonderful. I worked in news graphics, on the general news desk, in metro, in features, and in business. I designed the front page, edited local news, and covered media and aviation safety. It was a dream job.
I still count dozens of people there as friends, and I feel for them with this week's announcement of layoffs. It's tragic. The Seattle Times does a whole lot of heavy journalistic lifting but locally gets not nearly enough credit as the most influential news outlet in the Northwest. (Sorry, Oregonian and P-I, but it's true. For starters, seven Pulitzers.) Whatever you think of the paper, there are some very smart and hard-working people there, some of whom have risked health and life to cover the news and most of whom have worked long, disruptive hours for less money than you might think to put out one of the best papers of its size in the country.
The Seattle Times is the best we've got around here, and it's in peril.
I'm hereby convening the Seattle Times Alumni Association to brainstorm ways of pulling the newspaper out of the quicksand. It's not a hopeless case, but between the global circumstances of the newspaper business and some not-so-smart business decisions by the Seattle Times Co., the situation is pretty dire. I'm going to offer some radical suggestions for transforming the place. Then some former colleagues are going to weigh in. And you readers can have a shot in the comments below. This article will evolve in coming days, so stay tuned.
Here's my rescue plan:
Switch to free distribution at newsstands and double the circulation. Raise the price of home delivery. Keep raising it until it's cheaper for people to buy and own an iPhone. Full speed ahead on delivery of information to mobile devices and customized news, both pushed and displayed on the Web site.
Shift the emphasis of advertising sales staff to the Web. Continue to serve present print-edition advertisers, and don't turn away anyone who walks in the door, but focus all cold calls on Web ad sales. Help local businesses get online.
Stop trying to be a full-service news product. Make the Web site an indispensable guide to everything online, but don't try to create and provide everything.
Make the print edition a quick, portable guide to what's on the Times Web site. Run only the most compelling stories at length in print.
Drop all news services but the Associated Press regional wire. Aggregate the national and world news – summarize and link to the articles on other sites – and republish those summaries in the print edition, directing print readers to top-notch aggregation at the Web site.
In terms of original content, focus on core competencies: local and state news, business, sports, and investigations. Get back to basics on beat coverage. Don't be afraid to actually cover a meeting or news event. Own the City Hall, Port of Seattle, and Gates Foundation beats. Stop covering spot crime and traffic accidents. Let TV and radio do that. Write more about education, health, and science.
You've got two blogging stars – David Postman and Geoff Baker. Find some more. Is it time for the columnists to shift their emphasis to blogs? Hire freelance bloggers in major neighborhoods and the suburbs.
Stop writing about food, movies, TV, gardening, and outdoors. Arts and lifestyle subjects, unfortunately, are topics too fragmented for big newspapers to cover well. Own a few areas of intense local interest with immersed experts when you have them. Otherwise, be a guide to coverage of those arts and lifestyle areas by others.
Stop going to Paris and Rio. Focus travel coverage on places you can get to in a day of driving. That would be the Pacific Northwest. Write about it like it's the exotic place it is, then resell those stories to media in other parts of the country.
Refocus the investigative reporting. If it's not a story with high local impact or a big local target, forget it. Focus on the institutions in our backyard. What others besides the Port of Seattle and the Huskies are ripe for scrutiny?
Cut back the editorials from two to one per day. Don't run anything on the editorial page that isn't local. Run more reader-generated material. Provide an aggregated guide to the best commentary elsewhere on the Web.
In the old days, people received on their doorstep once a day a self-contained guide to life. Some still want that, but few people live that way anymore. Go where the eyeballs are – online. Stop spending time doing things others do better at the national level.
I'll stop there. What else?
Small town papers are thriving because they're essential
From Ross Anderson (Seattle Times 1971-2001): I made two excellent decisions during my 30-year newspaper career. The first was to go into daily newspapering in 1970 - just before the Watergate scandal launched journalism into one last glory period of prosperity and professional prestige. The second was to get out in 2001 - so I would not have to stay and watch them die.
The death spiral at The Seattle Times and other metro dailies carries an air of inevitability. But it's worth noting the economics of some 7,000 American newspapers, mostly small town weeklies, which are doing just fine. Take, for example, the weekly Port Townsend Leader, where I write a now-and-then column. Each week, the Leader sells 8,400 papers in a county of 30,000 people and 12,000 households - an amazing market penetration of 70 percent. And it makes money.
Maybe the economic grim reaper is taking a little longer to find us out here in the provinces. Or perhaps weeklies are providing something not found in metro dailies, or the Internet. Weeklies, after all, face the same competition. Most of us out here have cable TV and computers with high-speed Internet. Many of us get a Seattle daily or The New York Times delivered, as well. So why pay six bits a week for the local weekly?
Because weekly newspapers understand that journalism, like politics, starts at home. The Leader offers no national or world news; that we get from NPR, CNN, or online. But it makes itself indispensible by printing the information people need - high school sports and movie times, agendas for this week's school board and city council meetings, ferry schedules and tide tables, calendars of upcoming lectures and charity auctions and upcoming night classes on diesel maintenance or Internet marketing.
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