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An e-model for journalism in Seattle

ON THE MEDIA

After the 146-year-old Post-Intelligencer folded last year, 20 of 160 employees were retained to produce an online product.

March 20, 2010|James Rainey
  • The Seattle PI folded last year after 146 years. It's online only now.
The Seattle PI folded last year after 146 years. It's online only now. (Elaine Thompson / Associated…)

From Seattle — When a bright young reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer named Monica Guzman mentioned a couple of years ago that she planned to post a story with a Web link to the rival Seattle Times, colleagues didn't swallow their tongues. But close.

Joel Connelly, a veteran political columnist at the Post-Intelligencer, found that his forays away from his beat, to review books and write about religion, made union overseers all twitchy. They didn't like anybody coloring outside the lines.

But in the year since the Post-Intelligencer printed its last edition and laid off all but 20 of 160 employees, Guzman, Connelly and their co-workers have been unleashed to cover and link to just about whatever they want. Amateur journalists have been invited to join their ranks. Other media outlets have been thrown into the mix. A 146-year-old newspaper has been reborn as an Internet-only news site that invites material from almost all comers.

Whether Seattlepi.com becomes a paradigm for newspapers in the Internet Age remains to be seen. But on Thursday night, the "small but mighty news staff" -- the words of Executive Producer Michelle Nicolosi -- invited the community to celebrate one year of survival in their brave new guise.

The staff and supporters gathered at the Crocodile Café, where Nirvana once played. A man dressed as a globe with an eagle on top, just like the one that sits atop the PI's landmark office beside Puget Sound, listened to a Marilyn Monroe impersonator serenade him with a growly, campy, JFK-tribute-style "Happy Birthday."

The moment played a bit like Seattlepi.com itself -- uneven and inspired, accessible and oddball. The new PI can't afford to be comprehensive. It doesn't really try to be authoritative. It no longer offers routine coverage of county government, for example, but highlights felines in the cutesy LOLcats feature and misses no turn in the saga of Amanda Knox, the University of Washington student tried for murder in Italy.

Number crunching

It's difficult to extrapolate from Seattle to other cities, in part because the long-dominant Seattle Times still survives here. But the PI and Seattle find themselves in an extreme case of the broadening and flattening of media around the country. More voices and outlets keep staking out niches. No one is preeminent.

In the last three years, the city has seen the emergence of a pair of nonprofit websites, Investigate West and Crosscut, that produce deeper public service and investigative journalism. A new online for-profit, PubliCola, has scored political scoops. And the neighborhood-centric region has spawned a giant school of hyper-local blogs -- many published at Seattlepi.com.

"We are in a very, very rich ecosystem here," said Nicolosi, a former Orange County Register reporter who had begun building the broader community well before the newspaper died.

Pre-collapse, the print PI lost as much as an estimated $14 million in a year. Professional journalism could not continue with that sort of bleed out. Now an ad staff of 11 tries to find enough money to make the chopped-back enterprise self-sustaining.

They won't talk money details but acknowledge they're not yet profitable. A sheet of paper posted outside General Manager Pat Balles' office suggested the PI had "booked" $544,000 toward a first-quarter goal of $1.3 million. "Those aren't the real numbers," Balles said of the apparent shortfall, adding only that the site is "on track" to profitability.

The PI has succeeded in maintaining its traffic since the print edition folded. It claims an average of 4 million unique visitors and 40 million page views a month. (The Nielsen ratings agency puts monthly visitors at about half that.)

Newsroom survivors exhibit the ebullience (or is that fear, dusted with caffeine?) of living through a near-death experience.

"The 24-hour news cycle can be breathless and tense. Maybe we don't get enough time for reflection," said Connelly, who has logged 37 years here. "But on the other hand, we are part of a bold experiment to perhaps be part of a model for the business in the future."

Connelly, 61, took a pay cut to remain in the mix. He remains focused mostly on politics and government but in the new world also posts items on Alaska's aerial wolf kill and on the seal flippers served in the Ottawa House of Commons cafeteria.

He's one of the PI's remaining name brands, along with Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist David Horsey, and sports columnist Art Thiel.

Grass-roots

Despite the audience-driven lighter fare, the town's movers say the PI still lands enough scoops and worthy analysis on civic affairs to keep them coming back. But the most novel part of the operation would be its incorporation of citizen journalism, which Nicolosi and crew nurture in regular training sessions. They teach the amateurs how to choose a topic, write a headline, "optimize" a blog post for Internet search.

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