It's been almost a year since the Hearst Corporation pulled the plug on this city's oldest daily newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and simultaneously launched a new online-only venture, Seattlepi.com, which it hoped would become "Seattle's homepage."
At a swank party at the Seattle Art Museum two months after the project began, Hearst senior vice president Steve Swartz spoke of creating a website—or a "local digital media services organization," as he called it—that "crackles with newness and excitement."
How's that plan going? Hearst Corporation didn't respond to a request for details about Seattlepi.com one year into the project. Neither did the site's executive producer, Michelle Nicolosi. But a number of former Seattle P-I reporters, including one who also wrote for Seattlepi .com, were willing to offer verdicts.
Andrea James, a former Seattle P-I business reporter who worked briefly for Seattlepi.com, said she's familiar with the mockery the site gets in local media circles for its relentless flogging of cute animal stories and highly clickable fashion and celebrity photo galleries. (One notable top story at Seattlepi .com, posted on February 4, offered a picture of an adorable kitten peering around a corner and the headline "Do they know when you're going to die? How a 'grim reaper' cat may sense human death.") "Everyone who complains about the website needs to quit their griping," said James, now a stock analyst. "Who says you can't have really cute huggable puppies and transportation stories side by side?"
Regina Hackett, the former Seattle P-I art critic who now blogs for ArtsJournal.com, is less pleased with what the newspaper has become. "It's a placeholder impersonating a place," she said over e-mail. "It's journalism without journalists. It's a sham, but a sham with traffic. Oh, brave new world."
Hackett continued: "Reduce a staff of well over 100 to a staff of 8 to 10 (not counting advertising reps), and what do you get?... The core staff produces almost nothing worth reading. It doesn't have time to research, write, and edit. (Editors? Who they?) The result is snippets."
One somewhat predictable source of cheerleading for Seattlepi.com, given its recently announced partnership with the site: InvestigateWest, a project launched by former members of the print Seattle P-I's investigative team. Rita Hibbard, who used to run the Seattle P-I's newsroom and is now InvestigateWest's executive director, said Seattlepi.com is "doing well" covering the city with a small staff.
That's quite a contrast with Hackett, who has praise for some individuals at Seattlepi .com but thinks that in the end, the site's cut-rate way of producing an online newspaper is "bad for journalism, journalists, and the reading public."
For its part, Hearst Corporation appears to be quietly pleased. Seattlepi.com, the company says on its website, is "robust" and "read by an average of 3.7 million people in the Seattle area every month." That hasn't stopped speculation in the media world about how long Seattlepi.com can survive. At the moment, nobody knows the answer—except Hearst executives (and, perhaps, the grim reaper cat).