Crosscut reported yesterday that SeattlePI.com will lose a third of its remaining staff.
The company laid off two employees. Another one resigned. Those leaving include executive producer Sarah Rupp, senior editor and courts reporter Levi Pulkinnen, and senior producer Shannon Fears, who is also battling cancer. Today, The Stranger has learned that another staffer told coworkers of plans to leave. That departure will leave just six full-time staffers.
As Crosscut journalist David Kroman reported, the layoffs at the website stem from management decisions that placed SeattlePI.com under the editorial direction of SFGate, another Hearst outlet, two years ago. According to sources close to the situation, SFGate executive producer Brandon Mercer discouraged the kind of in-depth reporting staff specialized in when their organization was still known as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and instead demanded more coverage of the weather and aggregated "quick local hits."
In one demoralizing moment for the newsroom, Mercer asked that the reporters run a story about the weather in Seattle being hotter than the weather in Tucson, which was debatable. According to Weather Underground, an online weather service with historical data, Seattle reached a higher maximum temperature than Tucson on the day reported by SeattlePI.com, but Tucson had a higher average temperature by three degrees.
"It became a running joke in the newsroom," Kirsten O'Brien, who departed SeattlePI.com for the Seattle Times in late January, told The Stranger.
Tucson weather aside, O'Brien said that the demand from the bosses for bottom-line driven, click-based content pushed the PI newsroom further and further away from critical coverage of the city.
"We were real reporters," O'Brien said. "We, at some point, couldn't report stories anymore because we were too busy reporting stories about the weather. We got steamrolled. There's only so many battles you can fight. It became exhausting."
Nevertheless, SeattlePI.com published important reported work while juggling daily "quick local hit" quotas. In December, the newsroom dispatched a reporter and photographer down to the scene of the Amtrak derailment and filed multiple stories with original reporting as a team. In January, writer Daniel DeMay reported on how police are issuing unenforceable tickets to homeless people. Just this week, crime reporter Lynsi Burton published a moving profile of 21-year-old Trevon McKoy, who was fatally shot in the head in Seattle two weeks ago.
"We tried for a long time to prove to [Mercer] that we knew the market best," O'Brien said. "It just seemed like someone who didn't even live in the state trying to drive the editorial direction of a paper he was far removed from. And it just got worse, and worse, and worse."
O'Brien continued: "This was the need to drive pageviews and clicks. This was like that on hyperdrive, and it collapsed on itself."
In a study of contrast: The Seattle Times, in tweaking its strategy for digital growth, has concluded that in-depth, local reporting actually drives more loyal readers to its site than quickly produced, but substantively lacking stories intended to maximize clicks.
Mercer was not available to comment on the record. The Hearst Corporation, SeattlePI.com's corporate owners, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.