Photo by Faeryboots; licensed under Creative Commons.
The reasons for the P-I's seemingly imminent demise will undoubtedly be debated and discussed for months or years, but I want to throw out a couple of thoughts that P-I managing editor David McCumber alluded to in a blog post a couple of days ago. McCumber wrote:
I think as an industry we started our slide from a place of arrogance and self-importance. I think that nationally and locally, we've been slow to respond to changes in the market, in readers' needs and in technology. I think larger papers, like the P-I, gradually ossified by demanding years of experience for any opening, and paid too little attention to diversifying, in terms of age, ethnicity and gender, to better reflect the communities they serve. I think we haven't done a good job of marketing ourselves, of making sure people understand that what we do actually is valuable. I think we got trapped between serving the readers we wanted to attract and the readers we actually had. And we haven't done a very thorough job of continuing to research our readership and our potential readership.
As I see it, that assessment's only partly right. The P-I didn't fail because it diversified too little but because it diversified too much—and in the wrong directions. The paper invested heavily in areas where the market was already saturated—like celebrity gossip and photos from fashion shows—instead of choosing one area to really focus on (local politics, perhaps?) and making itself indispensible. I'm not going to second-guess the P-I's business strategy, but I do think their media (and, specifically, online) strategy—trying to be everything to everyone, instead of choosing one identity and owning it—was a key to their failure. A few examples:
Too many blogs. On the P-I's blog page, there are currently 26 separate blogs by P-I staff. Many overlap (are seven separate sports blogs really necessary? What if I'm interested in more than one team?); many have names that tell me next to nothing about what the blog is about (would you guess that "Secret Ingredients" was about public health? Or "Royal Brougham's Baby" about baseball?). A few are called out on the main page (the Big Blog, SPI, and Strange Bedfellows), but it's not clear why—does the P-I consider these their best blogs, the most important, the most read? Or are they chosen more or less at random?
If the staff blogs are an overcrowded marketplace of ideas, the reader blogs are a Super Wal-Mart, with something for every micro-interest. There's a blog on cakes and a blog on "fashion for moms"; one on charitable giving and one on pet health. If you're into cats, there's a specific blog for you—and them—too. There are blogs for aviation geeks, people interested in "haute happenings on the Eastside," and those who want to "age gracefully." Many haven't been updated for months.
I'm not saying the Slog model (one or two blogs that cover a wide range of subjects with a wide range of voices) is the only one that works, but you do want to strike a balance between allowing readers to choose what they want to read about and overwhelming them with more options than they can possibly explore. The P-I would have been wise to limit itself to fewer general topics—say, sports, news, opinion, entertainment, and food—instead of giving every micro-subject a blog of its own. (That's what Blogspot and Livejournal were made for). The reader blogs, meanwhile, are an uncurated mishmash of smart commentary and useless drivel, with no way to tell between the two without clicking on 100 links. If newspapers are going to let their readers blog (rather than just comment on blogs), they might want to make them audition and demonstrate some dedication; blogs that go dark for more than a few weeks should be shut down.
Too much frivolity. If there's one thing the Internet is not short on, it's celebrity gossip. And unless the P-I's market research reveals something dramatically counter to my own experience, people aren't getting their news about Naomi Campbell's latest outburst or Michelle Obama's inauguration gown from daily newspapers. But the P-I's busy front page looks more like a gossip rag than a daily newspaper. There's a roundup of photos from movie premieres; galleries for Fashion Week in Hong Kong AND the Fashion Rio show; a page of "First Lady Fashion"; a page full of "amazing animals"; a guide to TV listings; a gallery of readers' photos of their pets and another, below it, for photos of their kids; and on and on and on. The site is packed, but it's packed with stuff I can find better versions of elsewhere. If I'm going to a newspaper web site, I expect it to be dominated by news, with "soft" or "feature" content on a separate page, not splashed all over the main site. It looks unserious, and not in a good way.
Too much reader participation. At the P-I's web site, in addition to blogging about pretty much any topic under the sun, you can also submit an essay about "What the Inauguration Means to Me," upload your photos to MySeattlePix, take part in a forum about being a Seattle mom, become Facebook friends (and go to meetups) with various P-I reporters, and "Sound Off" in the comments to any story. Most of the blogs, perhaps under some managerial directive, incessantly direct questions at readers—e.g., "What do YOU think of Hearst's decision to sell the P-I"—in a way that comes off as desperate trolling for comments.
I'm not saying writers should wall themselves off from readers, but there comes a point when, as my mom would say, you need to hide more than you show. Instead of providing three dozen different points of contact, the P-I should have limited it to a few—say, the Sound Offs, the photo page, and the blogs. I'm willing to bet more people would be interested in giving feedback if they had fewer points of entry that were more obvious.
"Irreverance" can't be forced. The P-I's "youth-oriented" (yes, they really call it that that) blog, SPI, is produced by a horde of unpaid interns—as if handing the reins over to college students automatically results in a product that's "younger" "hipper" and more "raw." If the daily papers learned anything from its disastrous experiments with back pages produced by and for young adults (remember NEXT?), it's that "young" doesn't automatically mean "readable"—and that putting headlines in graffiti font doesn't fool kids into thinking daily newspapers are cool.
All of this isn't to slag on the things the P-I does well. As I wrote in this week's column, I'll miss the paper's local news reporting, the attention it paid to low-profile events, the fact that it truly has been a paper about Seattle, not the suburbs. But if the paper does have a future online—and that's a big if—it will have to adapt to survive. Maybe that will mean that instead of being everything to everyone, it will have to learn to do a few things well.