The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s reporters and editors might by excused for wondering if their top manager wasn’t rubbing salt in the wounds when Publisher Roger Oglesby sent around a staff memo Wednesday seeking “Ideas for partnerships, part time models, revenue sharing, freelancing and other creative types of structures that might help us reach our goal of creating a profitable (online) business model in the market.”
Oglesby seemed as stunned as the rest of the staff when Steve Swartz, president of Hearst Newspapers, The P-I’s owner, dropped his bombshell Jan. 9 that the 146-year-old print paper will probably be history by mid-March. But Oglesby is scrambling to catch up. Oglesby noted that Swartz was serious about Hearst’s interest in perhaps converting The P-I to a Web-only operation. Lincoln Millstein, Hearst’s digital guru who accompanied Swartz, is looking for, “thoughts on how to maintain and grow our online audience so we might have the competitive advantage in the market,” Oglesby’s staff memo said. Millstein, he added, would also like to know how an electronic P-I can make more money.
Hearst doesn’t publicly discuss its finances and Swartz and Millstein brushed off staffers’ shouted pleas for more details of future plans for The P-I during their newsroom appearance Friday. But current newspaper industry wisdom says online revenue accounts for only about 10 percent of print revenue. Hearst is looking for ideas for a viable online-only business model for the Seattle market to bridge that gap, Oglesby said.
One idea that probably won’t draw much enthusiasm from The P-I’s grieving employees: how to make good on Swartz’s promise that even if The P-I survives in some digital form its staff of 170 will have to be cut deeply. “Think lean,” Oglesby’s memo urges. “Invent what journalism can and should be at a lean online-only operation.”
Sometimes, however, thinking lean can be tough when you are in survival mode. P-I Managing Editor David McCumber, who achieved modest star status on the video circuit with his cameo as the unhappy backup man during Swartz’s speech, probably summed up best the prevailing reaction to his boss’s pitch-in-and-help memo. “It’s hard,” McCumber wrote in the paper’s daily Big Blog, “to be too upbeat about anything without sounding ridiculous.”
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