Monday, March 09, 2009

Memo to the new P-I: Don’t look back

Any day now, a handful of survivors from the Seattle Post- Intelligencer evidently will have a chance to invent the first digital-only newspaper in a major city. Assuming they get the chance, here’s how they might go about it:

Don’t look back.

You can’t replicate your old newspaper – or any other one, either. Don’t try. Put your resources into the stories you want to do, not the ones you think you are obligated to do.

Be different.

Make the new site look different, sound different and act different. Because it is different.

Cop an attitude.

Think of the site as a more of a blog than a newspaper. Pick your targets. Put a forward spin on the coverage. Write in an impassioned voice. Let every writer’s personality shine through.

Crib liberally.

Let the Seattle Times, local broadcasters and the wires cover the beats and write the ordinary stories. Leverage local bloggers, featuring the best stuff from them as though you had written it yourself. (Most of them will love you for it. Leave out the few who don’t.)

Go hyper for local.

Everyone on the staff should be trying to recruit new writers, new voices and new sources of content that you can aggregate to make your site the hands-down, go-to community forum. Staffers should be formally tasked to gin up hyper-local contributions from pastors, police chiefs and PTA presidents. Prominently feature the best of their work as though it were your own.

Make them pay, Part 1.

Create exclusive premium content and make subscribers pay for it from the very first day. If you start out giving away everything for free, it will be difficult to ever go back. (See also “Original Sin.”)

Make them pay, Part 2.

Limit the number of ad positions and stick to the highest possible rates. Don’t use cheap filler ads, because they degrade the value of your inventory. Sell 13-, 26- and 52-week sponsorships. Instead of fixating on page views, sell brand visibility, civic responsibility and the opportunity to be front and center before the shakers and movers of Seattle.

Take risks.

The work you do will play a major role in helping to define the future – and the future economics – of local news coverage. Take risks, try everything and have fun. Whatever you do, don’t look back.

18 Comments:

Anonymous Mike said...

1 - Don't look back - good.
2 - Be different - good.
3 - Cop an attitude - bad.
4 - Crib liberally - bad.
5 - Hyper local - good.
6 - Pay 1 and 2 - bad.
7 - Take risks - good.

1, 2, 5 and 7 are subjective and necessary for the publishing industry to survive.

3 and 4 will turn your product into just another blog full of hateful opinions masquerading as facts.

6 will never occur, ever. Pandora's box is opened. However, in honor of 7, go for it.

7:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Conventional news style is dead: Local new, sports and weather.

People search for topics they want to know first, be it:

weather (web site for weather).

news (whatever Britney did last night, People.com);

and sports: (some ESPN Web thing).

No point in forcing people to view things the old-fashioned way.

Like any animal, people will follow the path that offers the shortage amount of effort to reach their goal.

8:13 AM  
Anonymous Gerry Storch said...

As always, I enjoyed your musings as you are kind of an anti-blogger ... no scoffing, just offering positive ideas.

Of course, charge. And not a little. Charge enough to say that this is a worthwhile product that deserves getting paid for.

My only disagreement, if that's what it is, is that you didn't mention to me a very important element: trustworthiness.

Impassioned writing is fine but make sure it springs from fairness and balance as well.

So the local leftie minister ... and this is probably what will happen ... wants to write a column? Great. But seek out and publish a conservative one as well.

I don't think online papers ... much less print ones ... will flourish until they recapture themselves as being for the community at large rather than a political segment of it.

Please note the recent item about the Atlanta paper at least trying to stop the slanting of news and a one-sided presentation. Mr. Mutter, that's something I'd like to see you comment on.

8:53 AM  
Blogger ChannelingHemingway said...

I, for one, am jealous of the chance these few people may get. However, if what I saw for the staff lineup is correct, there are not enough writers and too many producers.

Charge? Maybe. Be innovative. For sure. Use every weapon at your disposal and partner partner partner.

2:26 PM  
Blogger j said...

Liked your list but couldn't sit by without offering tweaks on the monetization ideas:
Making a few monetization tweaks in the 'Memo to the new PI'

I'm looking at things from small, probably independent local POV so some of my points may not apply if people are trying to build a mini-PI

2:45 PM  
Anonymous Abe said...

Why do you not mention reporting?

It's not a news site if you're not doing reporting.

5:03 PM  
Blogger T Heller said...

I'm a frequent reader of the Seattle PI, even though I left the region five years ago.

The PI got an early start on its electronic capabilities several years back when the Seattle Times, their JOA partner, began morning delivery.

That headstart helped a lot, and as a result the PI has developed an *excellent* web site, on a par I believe with that of the NYTimes.

The PI's 'Sound Offs', enabled on all its local copy, is a great community chat platform (tho' the anonymity even of registered users can lead to abuses.)

That said, I am saddened to see the print paper on its last legs. Perhaps Hearst has some tricks up its sleeve. God knows, they -and the entire industry- need some.

5:42 PM  
Anonymous Gina Chen said...

I like your list. The part that's most important, I think, is: be different. If your online news looks just like a newspaper thrown on the Web, you're doomed.

And I disagree with "Mike." Cop an attitude is good. This is a revolution. Out with the old; in with the new.

I think the public appreciates a personality in a blog -- and a Web site. I know I do.

5:57 PM  
Anonymous ChuckL said...

there are a lot of good suggestions there, Alan, some of which are already being employed at places like cedar rapids and at wral in Raleigh, which is not a newspaper at all but a media company that is becoming a hub for the community. The problem as I see it is, at this point a site can do all of the things you mention, become a success editorially and journalistically, and still fail as a business. That's why I don't like the idea of paying for content. By making content available only to subscribers, you shield it from people who might come to it through the most popular Internet activity of the all: search. You're also shutting down the possibility of growing through social networking. What if I happen to like a PI story and recommend it to my friends on facebook and they can't read it because they don't subscribe. What I would suggest is, tear down the walls. It's the Internet dammit. Act like an Internet company. Get a search engine optimization specialist to make sure your content is grabbed by all the search crawlers. Monitor your traffic like a hawk, measure how many unique visitors you're getting and how much time they're spending with your site. Have a strong story for local online advertisers and employ sales reps who know how to sell the value of online advertising to local businesses. Use Internet tools to match advertisers with readers in a relevant way. At the end of the day, you will be more successful tearing down the walls than building them up.

6:30 PM  
Blogger nick said...

don't get the complaining about the Hearst group offer...it was the current P.I. management that ruined this paper by making it appealing to only half of the population (ie, it's anti-Republican style). Then the Hearst Group steps up and offers jobs to people who would otherwise be unemployed and people here are complaining about potential pay & benefits? Come on...if you've got a problem w/this outcome, tell it to the P.I....they did it to themselves.

As for Connelly, lets hope he doesn't get picked up. Just as I won't listen to loud-mouth types like O'Reilly, The Mannity & Rush Limpbaugh, I don't want to read Connelly's garbage either. Good riddance

7:11 PM  
Blogger nick said...

Accusing conservatives of accusing the media of having a liberal bias is a trademark liberal epithet. Thus, the dog chases it tail, 'round and 'round.

This is what passes for “making a point” in your mind, I see. The flaw in your thinking is that, in addition to the perspectives of left and right, there also happens to be an objective truth here, which is that there is no liberal bias in the news media as a whole—that in fact there is a moderate conservative bias. This has an important consequence: It renders mendacious all those conservative claims of liberal bias—a talking point which is popular in the first place because it is pressed so hard by the right-wing noise machine, such as Rush Limbaugh and Fox News—while simultaneously validating the objections that other people raise against this charge of liberal bias. There is no ouroboros here, no parity between the two factions. One is objectively wrong (that'd be your side, by the way), while the other is objectively correct. These are the facts of life which gave rise to Stephen Colbert's timeless quip, “Reality has a well-known liberal bias.”

I challenge you to put forth a list of conservative commentators either employed by the P.I. or contracted with via syndication.

Most of the conservative voices in the P-I are syndicated or published via wire service. I have never said, nor would I bother, that the P-I's editorial pages are conservative-leaning. They evidently are not, and this much is not contentious. What is contentious is that you, and the other right-wingers, routinely and predictably go on to assert that the P-I has failed financially because the paper's editorial pages are not right-wing enough. Oh, you dress it up in smart language like “fair and balanced” or “other viewpoints,” but what you really mean is that there aren't enough far-right conservative voices in the paper.

It doesn't occur to you and your ilk that the P-I is solidly representative of the cultural and political attitudes of our metropolis. It doesn't occur to you and your ilk that the P-I is routinely not liberal enough for someone like me. It doesn't occur to you and your ilk that the Seattle Times, whose editorial pages are never left-of-center, is doing no better financially, whereas more liberal alternative publications are comparatively doing much better. In fact, the only thing which does seem to occur to you, as it does to your ilk, is the same inane drivel that comes out of the mouths of people like Rush Limbaugh: “The P-I is too liberal! If only it had more Republican voices, it would be rolling in the dough!” To dumb it down for you, you're clueless, and all you know is what you're told by the flim-flam artists to whom you have foolishly abdicated your intellectual obligations.

The vast majority of neutral source material comes from AP syndications...

Now that's a joke in itself. The AP feeds are consistently the trash of the paper. The AP has serious institutional problems and is one of the breeding grounds for the media's conservative bias. You apparently were not paying attention last year when the AP's new Washington, D.C. bureau chief, Ron Fournier, declared outright that he would abandon journalistic neutrality and take a harder line against Obama—and proceeded to do so in the months that followed, with the help of right-wing AP lackeys like Charles Babington.

But don't take my word for it. You say that the AP is the best this paper has to offer in terms of political balance? Well: Take a look at the P-I's “most read” and “most e-mailed” lists. At the moment, about half are from the wire and half from the P-I. Those which are from the wire are about sports, gossip (Rihanna), science (wine may fight cancer), and an explosion in Montana. The only political stories on those lists right now were written by P-I reporters. That does nothing to help your argument; if anything, it works against you.

Seriously, when was the last time you read a bold-font byline on the front page linking to a conservative writer?

This is another example of your failure to appreciate that Seattle is not a conservative place. Conservatives are a tiny minority here. The P-I's lifestyle columnists are representative of this city. A right-wing columnist would not be. If the P-I had money to publish a hundred pages a day, then I'm sure it could make room to employ a resident basketcase who would take up the GOP standard in an ongoing series of incoherent screeds that you wingers would lap up with alacrity. But that's not reality. Reality is that your brand of politics has no base here. The political diversity which does exist in Seattle and its greater metropolitan area is not on a typical axis of “the far right” versus “everyone else.” There are a few hardcore right-wing ideologues here, such as yourself, but only a few. Most people have other political affiliations. They're Democrats, or, political party aside, they're libertarians, feminists, artists, scientists, environmentalists, and so forth. You're outnumbered. The kind of “balance” you want might be appropriate in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but not Seattle.

As for the PI's editorial pages and it's charter...you are ignoring the fact that people blur that line...

You really have no idea what you are talking about. Perhaps you should try reading this newspaper before pillorying it. But I fear that would be no help. You just don't get it that “bias” does not mean “a fact that Republicans don't like.”

For instance, with Lucy's bones in town, the subject of evolution was in the news in recent weeks. The coverage that I read focused primarily on the scientific and cultural aspects of the story. It didn't give much attention to the handful of crackpot creationists who feel that every news story involving evolution should be framed as a controversy between themselves and their battle against science, because objectively speaking they were irrelevant to the Lucy story. There was no bias in making little mention of their feeble protestations. They may feel that there was bias, but that would be arrogance of the worst sort: Here in Seattle, the Discovery Institute notwithstanding, creationists are vastly outnumbered by freethinking people, and, in any case, creationists are objectively wrong. They don't deserve the attention, validation, and acknowledgment which they tirelessly seek from the media. They simply don't.

That's just one example, but, whatever the subject, it turns out the same way.

...they do not separate blogging rhetoric from editorial board content.

Here you make a point, probably the only honest point in your entire rambling screed. I too would like it if the blogs on the P-I were held to a standard similar to the rest of the paper. Unfortunately, it's actually this newfangled style that is more popular and more profitable. Hard, objective news was never widely appealing—that's why the government, in wiser times, subsidized it so heavily. Today, news organizations are left to fend for themselves, and so profitability becomes everything for them. I expect that in the new, electronic-only P-I, we'll be seeing a lot more of the bloglike, not-necessarily-objective approach. But this is not a synonym for partisan bias. You simply must try harder to understand that adopting the cultural attitudes of the Seattle area is not political bias; it is representation.

Lastly, you should not assume for moment that I'm a rightwing/conservative sympathizer. I'm not...I voted for Obama (and for that matter, John Kerry). However, I find it troubling that the P.I. has moved so left of center that someone such as myself...a Democrat...is bothered by the bias.

I don't believe you for a second. You're a far-right conservative, all right. If it talks like one, and looks like one, and smells like one, then, buddy, it is one. I don't care what you claim your affiliations to be. The only thing that matters is your actual point of view, and you've proved pretty squarely that you're a petty, hate-filled, fact-averse, and socially immature far-right conservative. You earned it.

If you work for the P.I. and you're posting anonymously here, you have a real integrity problem. Come clean on who you are...it's obvious you have some open wound and are way too defensive for a simple subscriber/fan of the P.I.

Hilarious. If I actually worked for the P-I, I'd be showing your post all over the newsroom right now, and all of us would have a good laugh at your expense. But, as it so happens, I don't work for them and never have.

And, last and least:

I mean, you've posted on hundreds of stories involving numerous subjects...

You're bluffing. Sound Off profile pages don't give us access to the full list of of another person's comments. Only the most recent activity is available. Unless you're a stalker, the best you could factually say of me is that I've posted in thirty topics over the past two weeks.

Finally, for you to have bothered to look up that kind of information just to take a personal shot at me tells us more about your character than it does mine. I give you credit for trying your best to make this personal, but you've quite a ways to go yet. Cia

7:13 PM  
Anonymous Dhyana Sansoucie said...

Amen. Except for the make them pay part. By all means cop an attitude! Don't look back. And be local. Be a forum for the community.

7:18 PM  
Blogger nick said...

I admit I'm a little excited to see if the PI can pull of the web-only thing. One thing I'd like to see clarified is what the fuck nwsource dot com is. Who owns that and how is it tied to both papers? I see ads for it all over Metro. As long as the PI can publish on the web w/o the ads and advertorials of nwsource then I'm all for seeing what they can do. It would be a first, and an experiment that would surely test the waters for future papers.

8:54 PM  
Anonymous Suzanne said...

Agree with most of your comments. Disagree with paying for content. It's simply not the way of the web and I hope it never is.

As for advertising, sponsorships can be problematic if not handled well. Ideally, they should one of several web products in the mix. If they are used exclusively and are persistently present with no change in creative, they become wallpaper. The user stops seeing them. They should be used in conjunction with banner ads and rich media ads.

The content must be good for the audience, good for the advertiser, and good for the brand. If all three goals are not met, the solution is only short-term and will fail in the long run.

8:20 AM  
Anonymous Douglas Craver said...

Learn the basics of social media so the reader can choose how content is distributed to them and shared.

Optimized PI to leverage the fact that stories can potentially start on twitter first. This can be leveraged to take these news leads and provide the substance readers are looking for.

8:33 AM  
Blogger Gabriel Sama said...

Mr. Mutter,
Editor and Publisher just published online traffic numbers for the top 30 news sites. The P-I had the largest drop, by far, of all: minus 20% compared to Jan. 2008. Not good for the online-only plan. I'm not sure if Seattle readers really want this publication around -- on or offline.

8:45 PM  
Anonymous Michael B. said...

Why do media pundits continue to insist that having local leaders write columns or blogs is a good idea (ie: "Staffers should be formally tasked to gin up hyper-local contributions from pastors, police chiefs and PTA presidents. Prominently feature the best of their work as though it were your own.)?

Just because people are respected local leaders does not mean they can write interesting, engaging copy. They are not automatically good writers by virtue of their community status. (Or is that charm—folksy, unreadable columns by "real" people?) By the same token, there *may* be several great writers in a community who have no official status.

I mention this today, several days after this blog post appeared, because the P.I. apparently is going to make this very mistake, soliciting writing from a former mayor (and his wife), a congressman, the head of the local schools, a former police chief and so on. Will anyone read this drivel? I bet not.

4:54 PM  
Anonymous David said...

As a passionate newspaper reader, I am hungry for news which is geographically local to my community or focuses on my interests. As a former newspaper reporter, I believe that readers want the same thing. However, as an analyst I have to try to rely on numbers where possible.

Does anybody know of a reliable data series - covering, say, the last five years - that tracks circulation or readership by the circulation size of the daily newspaper? I am looking for anything that can add color to the discussion about whether very local newspapers do better than major metros - and I take it as a tentative hypothesis that small-circ dailies probably have a more hyper-local editorial focus than major metros.

3:12 PM  

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