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.
The emotional and journalistic definitions of success are more difficult to measure. By most accounts, the P-I is a far less relevant source of news than its print version; its talent has been reduced by an order of many.
Horsey, and columnists like Art Thiel, which gave the paper its unique voice, are gone. (Thiel co-founded Sports Press Northwest with former P-I columnist Steve Rudman.) Some of the paper’s investigative and enterprise reporters started InvestigateWest, a non-profit website dedicated to public-service and investigative journalism.
Editor Chris Grygiel, who helped with the P-I's transition from print to web, also left last year, becoming a state editor for the Associated Press. He had worked at the P-I since 2000 mostly as a government and politics editor. Coincidentally or not, the P-I's recent losses coincided with a round of layoffs at The Seattle Times, which let go of 20 employees in December, five of them from the newsroom.
The SeattlePI.com covers with a few what the paper used to cover with many. "It seems to be a little bit of everything,” said former reporter Kery Murakami. “It still does original reporting, so it’s not fair to say it’s just an aggregator or a portal. It seems to be a site trying to do things on the cheap but with no clear mission.” Murakami led the creation of the Seattle PostGlobe, an online news site run by former P-I staffers until it ran out of money and resources and withered last summer. Murakami now works as a reporter at Newsday.
The SeattlePI.com's mission, even three years ago, was not clear. The expectation back then, said former P-I staffer Monica Guzman, was that “we were going to be a small shop, we were going to be nimble, but we were going to figure this out. And then we were going to hire people back. That’s what you hoped for. You knew it was a stretch, but you had hope. I believed it then. Later, I wasn’t so sure.” Guzman started one of the main features of the SeattlePI.com, the Big Blog, a popular, catch-all, breezy update of the happenings about town. She left to work for a social media startup called Intersect and now works as a media consultant.
SeattlePI.com supplements staff articles with wire reports, photo galleries, quizzes, amateur blogs, and content from other Hearst properties. Original reporting and writing are always the most expensive form of content and the type that has been disappearing at many newspapers. Writers who leave tend to not be replaced.
Jim Moore, a sportswriter for the P-I for almost 30 years, stayed on after the transition as a freelance sports columnist along with Thiel and Greg Johns. Moore’s last column was in June. “I started out writing eight columns a month, then was cut to six, then was cut to nothing,” Moore said. “I was told it had nothing to do with the number of hits or page views the columns were getting and more to do with budget cuts. It bummed me out because it truly marked the end of my time there once and for all.”
SeattlePI.com’s sports department, which once also included Christian Caple and editor Gerry Spratt, is now a department of one, Nick Eaton. “I’m guessing he’s spread way too thin,” said Moore, who remains a friend of Eaton’s. “It’s a full-time job covering one team let alone five or six.”
A few pre-digital staffers remain at the P-I: Vanessa Ho, Scott Sunde, Joel Connelly. Most have duties as reporters, editors, and producers, the general term applied to those who build web content. One reporter, Casey McNerthney, covers crime; Connelly covers politics; Aubrey Cohen covers business; Amy Rolph writes the Big Blog, Guzman’s legacy.
Careful story selection, picking one’s spots, is a daily necessity. The most visible stories, like the shooting of the Lakewood police officers, get respectable treatment in the P-I; less visible stories might get ignored altogether. Such rationing is true at traditional newspapers as well.
“The name survived,” Murakami said. “The brand is more than the name. You can put Mountain Dew in Coke cans but it doesn’t take long to realize it’s no longer Coke. The brand died the day we shut down and when the staff that did the work that made the P-I the P-I were shown the door. Today, the P-I’s spirit is alive more in InvestigateWest than in SeattlePI.com.”
For now, the most famous symbol of the P-I’s legacy, the 20-foot, steel globe, remains at the paper’s former headquarters at 101 Elliott Avenue West. The 19-ton globe was built in 1948, its design adapted from the winning submission of a contest held to choose a symbol for the paper. It was built at a cost of $26,000. Vulnerable to the effects of weather, the globe was expensive to maintain. Until recently, its future, like that of the news organization it represented, was in doubt.
Earlier this month, Hearst agreed to give the globe to the Museum of History and Industry, which will refurbish it and probably move it to a location yet to be determined. One thing is certain: the globe will no longer rotate above the heads of the reporters it once represented.