The Public Publisher: A new vision for Crosscut

Our new publisher shares what he's learning and what to expect.
Crosscut archive image.
Our new publisher shares what he's learning and what to expect.

One month into my new role and readers, writers, editors and financial supporters tell me they are eager to hear our new vision. 

It will take awhile to articulate the long-term vision and related changes, but the substantial feedback we’ve gotten from you, coupled with news industry analysis and market trends in the region make it possible to share some of the vision as it emerges.

A well-articulated vision for Crosscut begins with a well-articulated mission.

The New York Times is “all the news that’s fit to print.” If you don’t quite have a print product of your own, like The Daily Beast, the promise to readers is to be “a smart, speedy take on the news from around the world, combined with the depth and investigative power of Newsweek Magazine.” Slate is purely an “online magazine of news, politics, and culture [combining] humor and insight in thoughtful analyses of current events and political news.”

Search for us on Google or Bing and you’ll find that we tell readers this about our purpose: “Crosscut provides daily Seattle area news online including Seattle arts, Seattle politics and news from the Pacific Northwest.”

Crosscut’s formal mission statement has been “to reveal and strengthen the civic and cultural life of Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. We do this primarily through an online daily magazine, Crosscut finds, produces, and amplifies each day the most thoughtful, compelling and constructive journalism and commentary about Seattle and the wider Northwest region. We seek to activate our readers by giving them reliable information and helpful tools for connecting, so that they are inspired to work for positive change in their communities and their lives.”

Our greatest value proposition, however, may be that Crosscut insists on shining a big bright light on the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ in journalism’s formula for complete story-telling and thorough investigation. You may remember the "5 Ws and an H" from high school journalism – who, what, when, where, why and how. From a news perspective, our region is doing OK with the who, what, when and where. This is the basic information gathering of reporting and good police work. 

Crosscut is mostly focused on the why and the how. These questions are more complicated and nuanced. They require a nonpartisan, open and multi-viewpoint orientation. The ‘why’ and ‘how’ are mostly about context, something dreadfully missing in public dialogue.  With today’s fragmented media landscape, we simply don’t have the resources of a Seattle Times or a KIRO or KING to be the first to report on a fire, a game or a vote. Crosscut’s community of more than 100 smart, experienced writers and editors can flesh out, supplement — and at times contradict — traditional print and broadcast reporting.

Crosscut readers want independent analysis — data, evidence and sound logic — to inform, engage and activate our region on the most important and the most relevant civic and cultural topics. They also expect to enjoy our site, to be entertained.

On average, about 80,000 readers each month visit Crosscut. They are mostly from Seattle, Bellevue and Oympia, but we also get a lot of visitors from Yakima, Spokane, Tri-Cities, Portland and even Washington, D.C. and the Silicon Valley in California. Like our nonprofit news colleagues in Texas and Minneapolis, we want to get that number up above 200,000 visitors — both for impact and sustainability purposes.

To get there, Crosscut must build on its first five years, and continually improve. Here are 10 ways we will start to do just that:

1. Listen more to the market – This summer we surveyed readers and this fall we’ve been listening a lot to writers, editors and supporters. Journalism in general and Crosscut more specifically must do more to be attuned to the market. We must also write stories people do not yet know are important or relevant. Readership, sustaining funding and contribution to community progress are among the metrics we will use to measure ourselves.

2. Recruit another senior editor and find our voice – David Brewster was the founding voice of Crosscut. He will remain — both as a board member and as a writer — but inevitably the voice will change. Over the years David has hired many capable managing and associate editors, including Pete Jackson and Chuck Taylor (both now at the Everett Herald) as well as Michelle Matassa Flores (now at PSBJ). Our current editing talent, Berit Anderson and Joe Copeland, have done an outstanding job of keeping the editorial product interesting and engaging in the face of difficult economic realities.

As we look to the future, we need to identify an an additional experienced, clear voice to lead our editorial product. The new editor will be a partner in creating Crosscut 2.0. Writers and others have asked why I don’t take that role myself. First, I am not qualified to be the editor I think we need, and second, I think there are two clear roles — a business leader (publisher) and an editorial voice for our writers (editor). The editor will, of course, report to me so I will have some say in the editorial voice and direction. 

When I think of great editorial voices, I think of Michael Kinsley, Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post, David Remnick of The New Yorker and Chris Hughes at the new New Republic. Closer to home, David Boardman of The Seattle Times has been a highly successful editorial voice during tough times in daily journalism. As a kid growing up in Tulsa, Jenkin Lloyd Jones, Sr. was my image of and my aspiration for a great editor and publisher. The Tribune was the afternoon paper and far superior, in my view, to the morning Tulsa World, where I worked as a stringer in the 1980s. Somewhere in that mix lies the answer. Tough, perky, provocative, ethical and devoted to the mission.

3. Diversify To us, Crosscut means slicing through the layers of an issue and across society to get to the heart of the matter. Our region is incredibly diverse and so must our coverage be. How often have you heard of the 80-plus languages spoken in a nearby community? How often have we read about “blue” Seattle, “red” Eastern Washington and the “purpling” of suburbia? We are a young tech city with older leadership in civic and cultural institutions. Our writers and content should reflect that demographic and geographic diversity.

4. Deepen in a few key areas Crosscut delights the reader with unexpected stories and perspectives. Our sweet spot has been Seattle civics and culture, but we may be too Seattle-centric. The Eastside — specifically the suburban crescent of Mercer Island, Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond and north to Woodinville and Bothell — deserve more coverage. Readers and the market indicate there are opportunities to expand and deepen our coverage of Olympia’s state politics and policies. We are in the publishing industry, yet we have not gone as deep as we should into the e-publishing industry that is sprouting all around us. Food and transportation are among our most popular stories. We should feed and accelerate those, so to speak.

5. Frequency Crosscut has largely been a digital daily. Five days a week, Monday through Friday, we publish dozens of original articles, plus our own selection of the most relevant news from other sources. There is an open question in our minds about whether the digital daily is the right model, or if we should focus on fewer stories published less frequently like The New Yorker or Texas Monthly. 

Our readership climbs steadily through the early morning hours, starting at about 6 am through about noon, and then slowly dissipates through the afternoon until the evening hours, when we see another bump in readership. Starting next month we will experiment with a new afternoon news scan — it will be our round-up of the most important news stories that develop during the workday. We have already started to bring you stories throughout the day, rather than holding them for a midnight publish time. 

6. Articles that drive engagement and activationA single article, no matter how great, is often not enough to attract the attention and deliberation it merits. Years ago David Bradley, then the new publisher of the Atlantic, asked me to serve on an advisory board that would help inform future directions for the historic magazine. As head of the Advisory Board Company, David understood that — for both for economic and impact reasons — the Atlantic Media Company would need to build conferences and other convenings around the content they produce. Slate magazine has its “gabfest.” This idea has some resonance with our editors and writers as well as funders we’ve meet with.

7. Partnerships Partnering is all the rage these days in the media business. Partnerships that lead to shared content and shared marketing are the most common. Everyone is looking to expand their reach and get the most they can out of the resources they have. Crosscut’s influential readership makes it attractive to news and other media partnerships. Just recently we announced that Art Thiel’s Sports Press Northwest will be more visible on our site, and we hope to grow that.

We are exploring ways to work more closely with our friends at Seattle Magazine and perhaps other nonprofit news organizations like Investigate West, KUOW, KPLU and KCTS. This week we began working with the Seattle Channel to explore ways of providing public access to our editorial board meetings, beginning with our guest this month, public arena financier Chris Hansen. And we will explore possibilities with the Washington News Council, which has become a respected "outside ombudsman" for the news media in this state.

8. Optimize the look and feel of our site, especially for mobile readersPresently, just under 15 percent of Crosscut readers are using a tablet or cell phone to read. Nationally, however, one-third of Americans get their news on a mobile device. This past week Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism reported that after email, news is the most popular activity on a cell phone or tablet. Blog software developers like Word Press and Blogger are reportedly turning around their entire businesses to focus on mobile blogging. And earlier this month the Salt Lake Tribune said that about half of readers are viewing their news on a screen. This is a clear market direction and one Crosscut will prioritize with current funds and in our fundraising.

9. PrintIn its earliest days, Slate offered a weekly print edition at local Starbucks — or you could press a button and easily print the weekly roundup of Slate content. Publishers want readers to occasionally run into their content physically. Even though our focus is the online experience, we want to explore ways of making our content available at newsstands, bookstores or through the mail. A friend of mine reads a local football blog regularly, but also looks forward to the quarterly print edition. Whether it’s a reward for members or a means of attracting new readers, a print issue is something worth exploring.

10. More visibility At Crosscut board meetings, frequently in the opening moments, someone will make the point that Crosscut is not as well-known as it should be. Sure, we are well-read among community leaders and the media savvy, but there is more we can do to promote our articles and their authors. Skip Berger, for example, is one of our regular writers and also a regular on KUOW and in Seattle Magaine. Many readers say they first learned about Crosscut as a result of his appearances on the radio or in the magazine.

The culmination of some of the elements described above — media partnerships and convenings — will help. Social media will continue to be an emphasis. We are making good progress with 1,600 Facebook friends and nearly 4,700 followers on Twitter. We also think that a physical Crosscut — something in print as well as the use of more video — can advance our visibility.

The stimulation and opportunity of this past month have made me feel 10 years younger. Good thing, too. Fleet feet — and quick fingers — are needed in this vibrant, turbulent, exciting and unpredictable field of online journalism.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Greg Shaw

Greg Shaw

Greg Shaw is a senior director in Microsoft’s strategy group.