Anger and Aggregation
The P-I's Online Plan and Its Discontents
T he view from the executive conference room at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer looks westward, out over the train tracks that run behind the newspaper's headquarters on Elliott Avenue, over Puget Sound and the ferries and freighters and sailboats that traverse it, over islands and foothills and, finally, at the wall of white-and-blue peaks that make up the Olympic Mountains.
If you turn away from this quintessential Seattle view, you will see, on the wall opposite, a giant map of the world. It's the kind of newspaper office space, filled with a sense of dominion far beyond its confines, that harks back to an earlier time, when big-city dailies were, indeed, masters of all they surveyed. Powerful, barely challenged conduits of information and commerce, they were regarded much like those railway tracks once were: essential pieces of American life, impossible to do without.
On February 18, beginning at 9:00 a.m., Ken Riddick, the vice president for digital media at the Hearst Corporation, took up residence in this seductive space and held a series of 25 meetings with P-I journalists, each lasting about 20 minutes. The topic: What to do with the P-I's website now that Seattle's oldest daily newspaper—founded in 1863 and currently the longest-operating business in Washington State—is all but certain to meet its end in mid-March.
Riddick is a former photojournalist with a well-trimmed beard, balding head, and slight accent that struck some as Southern, or maybe Texan; he came to these conversations wearing a suit and black cowboy boots. His shirt and tie—well, they are remembered in different ways by the P-I reporters who met with him, and this may be because these reporters, accustomed to asking questions and taking note of everything, found themselves on this day in the opposite position. They were there to pitch Riddick their ideas for an online-only P-I, even though it was far from guaranteed that they would be part of such a venture.
Assuming Hearst continues with the process of closing down the print edition by mid-March, it's easy to imagine an online-only P-I staffed with as few as 20 people. Or even fewer. As a result, at this point nearly all of the paper's roughly 170 employees expect to be out of a job. No surprise, then, that there had been considerable ambivalence among the reporters when an e-mail went out on February 12 offering them the opportunity to sign up to meet "Ken Riddick from corporate."
"There are people with plenty of ideas here," said Athima Chansanchai, who has been at the paper four years and writes for the Arts & Entertainment section. But, she added, "What makes [Riddick] think people are going to give them away for free?"
This sentiment may have accounted for the fact that the afternoon before Riddick's arrival, the sign-up sheet to meet with him was far from full. However, fear of unemployment is a powerful thing. By the next morning, there wasn't an open slot to be had—and even Chansanchai, who, in the end, would prefer to keep working in Seattle as a journalist, had put herself on the list. "I was like, 'What the hell could it hurt?'" she explained.
"You feel a bit like it's an audition," said Mike Lewis, who has been at the paper eight years and writes the Under the Needle column. He signed up to meet with Riddick in the hopes of staying in journalism at a time when there are few jobs to be had in the industry. "You know that if they do keep an online publication—and my suspicion is that they will—that they're going to keep many fewer people."
Regina Hackett, the P-I's art critic for 27 years, described the tension this way: "He was sitting at the big table. The big Mussolini table. There's the view of the water. I'm taking in the waves. And then I turn around and see this warm open face... But he's a reporter. We all have that warm and open face, when we're working... And so I know I gotta be on my game. It's match, set, point."
O fficially, both inside and outside the P-I headquarters, all plans for the online-only P-I are discussed in purely hypothetical terms—if at all. But it's increasingly hard to imagine that an online-only launch isn't going to happen. "[Riddick] told me that they're operating as if we're going to go forward," said Andrea James, a business reporter who has been at the P-I since 2006. "So I didn't get the feeling that Hearst has a big question mark over its head and doesn't know what it's doing."
Hearst did not respond to a request to make Riddick available for an interview. But according to more than a half-dozen P-I reporters who participated in meetings with him that day, he was resolutely cagey.
"He was mainly receiving my ideas and input," said political columnist Joel Connelly, who has worked at the P-I since the summer of 1973 and is one of the paper's more loquacious storehouses of Northwest knowledge. True to form, Connelly used some of his 20 minutes with Riddick to take the man from corporate over to the window and tick off the names of every single one of the Olympic peaks in the distance. Later, Connelly regaled Riddick with tales of flush times when, at the P-I's expense, he traveled the entire length of the United States-Canada border with a photographer and reported back from the journey.
Connelly did not ask Riddick what the future holds. "Since you can't forecast the future, I wouldn't ask him to," he explained. James, the business reporter, recounted: "Ken was really clear that he wasn't going to tell me what the strategy was."
But even if Riddick didn't explicitly talk strategy, he did share some interesting information during the meetings. In addition, some important, highly visible changes to the website are happening already, without fanfare or broad internal discussion. Based on those changes, as well as on the accounts of Riddick's meetings and accounts of the planning currently under way at the P-I, it's possible to get a sense of what an online-only P-I will probably look like.
In a significant departure from longstanding P-I practice, the new website, as currently conceived, will become, in part, an aggregator of links to interesting stories and blog posts elsewhere. If that sounds familiar, it should. The model has been pioneered by sites like HuffingtonPost.com, which takes an eclectic, opinionated, and often celebrity-focused approach to information gathering, mixing reports from its tiny staff with blog posts by notable actors and politicos, photo albums of fabulous people, and a constant stream of links to the hot news stories of the day (almost all originally reported by other publications).
"I do think that they are trying to implement some things that Huffington Post and other online sites are implementing," said one P-I reporter who had a meeting with Riddick.
When told that it seems the P-I website will become some sort of aggregator-blog hybrid, much like the small, Seattle-focused website Crosscut.com—which itself is partly modeled on Huffington Post—Connelly made an affirmative sound, a sort of high-pitched, throaty "Mmmmhmmm." It was unclear whether he was confirming the new direction or merely endorsing the concept. "I don't want to jinx what I hope happens by making a prediction of what will happen," he explained.
In any case, some of it is happening far sooner than most people thought it would. On February 20, just two days after the Riddick meetings, the P-I home page prominently linked, in a style usually reserved for its own top stories, a post by the West Seattle Blog about the costs of this winter's big snowstorm. When readers clicked this link, they ended up on a separate blog whose content the P-I does not control, rather than a story by the P-I's own staff. Within a few hours, the P-I's home page also featured links to Lifehacker.com, King5.com, and Slog, The Stranger's news and arts blog.
Some P-I reporters were furious; they hadn't been warned in advance that this was coming—yet another sign that a small core of online decision makers is parting ways with the rest of the paper. "This is a HUGE change," wrote one P-I reporter via e-mail. Another P-I reporter, also via e-mail, wrote: "Sheesh. What's next? Linking to the [Seattle] Times?" And from a third: "This is the first time the P-I has given away its position of authority in such a clear way." It is, in fact, hard to overstate how big a transition this aggregation of outside links represents for a daily newspaper that, until now, has operated on the belief that local news should be conveyed only through its own trusted reporters.
But the change fits with something else that's been becoming more and more clear lately: Hearst wants to hold on to the P-I brand, and the online traffic that comes with it, but it's ready to jettison a lot of old notions about what makes a newspaper work. It will likely retain some of the P-I's more popular blogs (like the Microsoft blog, the crime-focused Seattle 911 blog, and the catchall Big Blog), and perhaps some of its expensive but popular talent (like Pulitzer Prize–winning cartoonist David Horsey and sports columnist Art Thiel). And it will probably keep a small group of reporters who will focus on core local beats and breaking news, as well as hold on to its user-generated content (like the frequently less-than-insightful—but free!—reader blogs and story "Sound Offs").
When all is redesigned and reoriented, the online-only P-I probably won't feel like the website of a traditional, midsize-city newspaper. One P-I reporter said that Riddick talked favorably about how Yahoo!, the massive search engine and portal, links only a few news stories on its home page. The lesson: It doesn't take much staff to run a high-traffic online publication. (On February 23, Hearst named a former Yahoo! vice president as its new special assistant to the CEO for digital media.)
W hat would be the point of moving the P-I's website in this direction? Increased traffic, for one. The online P-I already draws a considerable number of readers—more than 2.8 million page views for its blogs alone in January, and half a billion hits overall last year—but if it can transform itself into a "sticky" entry point into the online universe of Northwest news and opinion (in the sense that people tend to come there and stay a while before moving on, which advertisers like), then it has a chance to draw even more readers and, presumably, revenue.
In other words, by unmooring itself from the idea that its own content is king, drastically lightening its staff load, and mixing up its presentation, the new online P-I is going to try to float to the top of the Northwest link heap. Many of the small, local news blogs linked by the P-I home page will love the traffic and will therefore solicit links from the P-I, creating a nice positive feedback loop for the online-only staff. Larger blogs (such as Slog, which had 1.58 million page views in January) will also benefit, though to a lesser degree.
One big unanswered question is whether the new, aggregating P-I will ever link its former print rival, the Seattle Times. (According to one P-I reporter who met with Riddick, he said it probably would.) But if enough Northwest readers choose to always begin their online information-gathering journeys at the P-I—even though the links there may quickly take them to Lifehacker or West Seattle Blog or Slog or even the Times—the publication could return, in an online way, to the role that traditional newspapers used to enjoy: powerful gatekeeper.
Could Hearst actually make money this way? Probably not—at least initially. The Huffington Post, launched in May of 2005, still relies on venture capital to operate. On top of that, the P-I currently lacks something that the Huffington Post has had from the beginning: a clear identity as a tech-savvy and left-leaning virtual commons. The P-I's identity is more muddled: oldest newspaper in town, more left-leaning of the two dailies, scrappy but still somewhat stodgy, ward of the giant Hearst corporation since 1921, relative online neophyte. Hearst would essentially be playing the role of venture capitalist behind this work-in-progress, losing money for now on a product that might provide significant returns in the future.
In a way, this would make sense; whatever Hearst stands to lose by running a slimmed-down, online-only P-I, it is likely to be far less than the $14 million Hearst lost on the print and online P-I last year alone.
But the inevitable try-it-and-see dynamic of the effort also has its drawbacks, particularly for journalists looking for stability in an unsettled economy. "I'm not saying I would even take the job, frankly," said Chansanchai. "They would have to give me much more security than, 'Oh, we'll just try this out for a couple of months.'" Hackett, noting that she stands to get a full year's severance pay if she's laid off from the P-I in March, said: "I'm going to forego that and work for free for a year? No... I'm not sure I need them. I mean, I'm sure I don't need them. Do I want to be part of this? It depends on what form it takes." After all, with a year's severance, she could make a run at launching her own blog.
In fact, the low cost of starting up online ventures has inspired a number of conversations among P-I employees about websites they might launch together. "It's a contingency plan," said Kery Murakami, who has been at the P-I nine years and is helping lead one of the efforts. "The reality is we can't wait until they formally decide not to do anything, because then it's too late." However, in the event that Hearst launches an online-only P-I but doesn't hire some or all of the contingency planners like Murakami—well, they can easily turn their "contingency" plans into blueprints for a rival site.
The problem is funding, even for a "nonprofit" online business model (such as the model Crosscut just implemented after operating as a for-profit didn't work). The world is not exactly bursting with people wanting to donate to online journalism, and severance checks only go so far when there are still bills and mortgages to pay. Kathy George, of the Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town, guesses that some of the city's high-paid investigative reporters might end up working out of the University of Washington, operating on money from the Knight Foundation. But other than that, discussions of independent staff start-ups don't seem to be going anywhere yet. "They're very circular conversations at a certain point," Lewis said. "The way you break that circle is you have money." Right now, few have it—except, apparently, Hearst.
W hich gets right back to the anxiety that P-I reporters are feeling. "I'm scared and I'm eager and I desperately want to keep a job in journalism," Lewis said. He brought an audio recorder to his meeting with Riddick, hoping to use the tape for a public-radio series he's doing on the end of his newspaper. He wasn't allowed to record the conversation, but he stayed anyway, trying to make his case. "Of course I'm going to play this game," Lewis said. "I don't know that I have any choice."
All the eye-blurring tension can make it hard to concentrate. Lewis thinks the color of Riddick's tie might have been bright red, though he can't remember for sure now. Murakami doesn't remember, either. Neither does James, though she did remember the black cowboy boots. ("He's based in Houston," she explained.) Another P-I reporter said: "Something was red." Still another P-I reporter recalled a loud, patterned tie and a "maroonish" shirt. Hackett, whose summation of her pitch—"I think I made a good case: I told him he doesn't need me"—underlined the general oddness and uneasiness of the whole affair, reported this about sartorial aesthetics: "I got a red-tie feeling. I have a ruddy feeling on the guy. I mean, he's in the warm tones. He's not in the cadaverous tones. I didn't get the sense of uptight suit."
Riddick told several of the nervous reporters that ultimately he's not the one making the decision about whether the online-only P-I goes forward. Who is making the call if not the vice president for digital media? Connelly, naturally, offered a mountain metaphor to explain the Hearst hierarchy: "Strange things occur when you get near the summit."
So, like everyone else, Lewis awaits the official answer (even as it becomes more and more apparent what it will be). Meanwhile, having made his best case to Riddick, he's now working on a nostalgic story slated to run in the P-I's final print edition. Recently, he asked his bosses what day the story would run. They said they didn't know.