Three years ago, when the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ceased operating as a traditional newspaper, the small staff of journalists who survived the transition moved to a higher floor of the newspaper’s headquarters on Elliott Avenue. The second floor, which had served as the main newsroom, resembled a ghost office. Up on the fifth floor, the staff worked in closer, more reassuring quarters — the massive neon globe, icon of the paper and the city, still spinning above them.
Last St. Patrick’s Day marked three years since the Post-Intelligencer became a web-only publication, SeattlePI.com. The already truncated staff has grown even smaller, most notably with the symbolically significant departure in December of Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist David Horsey, and the departure one month later of executive producer (the web equivalent of an executive editor) Michelle Nicolosi, who led the P-I’s transformation from print to digital.
Horsey went to the Los Angeles Times; Nicolosi started an e-book publishing company. The P-I’s newsroom staff no longer works under the neon globe but in the Real Networks building, a half-mile to the south. Those dozen or so journalists, various part-time bloggers, and the outside publications that provide content for the site are what remain of the P-I brand.
Last weekend, the website posted staff-generated news reports on a variety of topics — a bus accident, a fatal stabbing, the signing of quarterback Matt Flynn by the Seahawks — alongside the site’s usual mix of slideshows, celebrity gossip, neighborhood blogs, and relationship advice. Nowhere was the anniversary of the newspaper’s metamorphosis mentioned. Indeed, the event long ago stopped being news.
The P-I did not survive as a newspaper, but it has survived as a news medium. The cost of its survival is debatable, although the same debate can be had over just about every newspaper in the digital age. Despite the shrinking staff, the SeattlePI.com’s owners are committed to its future said Paul Luthringer, vice president at the Hearst Corporation, which owns the P-I as well as scores of daily newspapers, magazines, and television stations.
In a prepared statement, Luthringer said, the P-I website “continues to be a comprehensive, digital news operation committed to covering breaking news on a local and national scale while also serving readers with the day’s most-talked about stories… Hearst remains committed to publishing a must-visit website in Seattle that reflects and serves the community.” Luthringer said visitor traffic, much of which is national readership, is up to 4 million per month. As for the site’s profitability, he said only that “financial performance continues to improve year-over-year.”
(Members of the current staff, including interim executive producer Sarah Rupp, did not respond to requests for interviews; nor did Horsey or Nicolosi.)
The question of the P-I’s success is really two questions, one of business, the other of emotions. The site’s page views, its mere existence is proof of its success or at least durability as a business.
The financial model of the P-I has two components, the site itself with the advertising revenue it generates, and secondly the sale of advertising to other sites. Three years ago, Hearst executive Steve Swartz, credited with the decision of closing down the newspaper's print side, explained: “On the business side, we are assembling a staff to form a local digital agency that will sell local businesses advertising on SeattlePI.com as well as the digital advertising products of our partners: Yahoo! for display advertising, Kaango for general marketplaces and Google (GOOG), Yahoo!, MSN and Ask.com for search engine marketing,” Swartz said. “The site will also feature a digital yellow pages directory powered by Hearst's yellow pages unit, White Directory Publishers.”
When the P-I went digital, Hearst offered advertisers not just exposure on SeattlePI.com, but also on partner sites like Yahoo!, MSN, Google, and Ask.com. In essence, the P-I positioned itself to be more than a purely local medium. As a quasi-national medium with a local bent, it stood to gain more advertisers and charge more for its ads. As a result (and also because of that), many of the P-I’s 4 million unique visitors per month come from outside Seattle. In essence, the P-I earns extra revenue by “selling links to content on other Web sites and from Hearst Media Services, which is a full-service digital advertising agency," Luthringer said.
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