Requiem For A Newspaper, Part IV: Time For The Times
Most of my focus in this series has been on the P-I, whether it’s viable as an online news site without the print side of things, and how we’re going to have to confront the possibility that we’ll be a zero newspaper town in the coming years. A few people, though, have reminded me that the Seattle Times, despite their tenuous financial position, is not dead yet. Indeed, shutting down the P-I buys the Times as much as two years to try and come up with a way out of their financial troubles. They will keep their ad sales team while no longer splitting ad revenue with Hearst. They will inherit P-I subscribers (though how many remains to be seen). And they own their own press and their own buildings.
But how much of this is a virtue for the Times? The end of the JOA has the same double-edged sword of a messy divorce settlement — while the ex-wife may get the house and car and leave the ex-husband with nothing, the ex-husband doesn’t have to make the mortgage payment and car payment or pay for their upkeep. He walks away with nothing, but he owes nothing. She walks away with everything, but now she has bills to pay. And so, while the Times is left trying to maintain their old business model and union contract in order to keep the presses running, Hearst is left with no financial obligations and can opt to pursue an online news site without worrying about keeping the presses running.
The Times is still viable. But they have some hard decisions to make. Even though they were one of the first papers to go online — and one of the earliest to realize that not charging for content online made the right business sense — they’ve ossified in the last 5-10 years. Comments on news stories are a recent innovation for them; the P-I was doing it in 2006. Times blogs have been furtive and mostly focused on their writing staff and their own navel gazing; the P-I used Reader Blogs to increase their coverage. As a result, the P-I has been ahead of the Times in web traffic for over a year, opening up a 500,000 unique user lead in December.
So, with their future on the line, here are my suggestions for the Times if they want to stay viable.
- Understand that now that you’re the only newspaper left in town you don’t have a choice but to publish. The core of Times subscribers are older, more conservative folk who will keep buying the paper because they like paper and won’t be bothered with the computer. My mother-in-law, at 75, still takes the Birmingham News because she feels like she’s too old to learn computers now. And she still does the crossword every single morning. There are tens of thousands of people like my mother-in-law who aren’t going to make the conversion to online. They still need to be informed of local news. And they’ll pay a buck an issue if they have to (but whine the whole time about how much money it is). Print is not going away immediately, not unless the Times falls apart days after the P-I ceases publication.
- Poach the online-focused talent at the P-I before the Hearst shutdown date. It’s clear that Hearst is thinking online, and it’s clear the Blethens aren’t. And yes, Hearst will clear out 80-90% of the staff if they go online, so there will be a lot of cheap talent on the market come April. But that 10-20% are the people who should be running the Times’ online properties right now. They’re the reason why the P-I is crushing the Times online. And poaching them will not only give the Times an advantage when they’re ready to shift online, it will also deplete the talent pool Hearst will have to work with when they’re ready to launch the online-only P-I.
- Get back to covering Seattle. One of the biggest complaints about the Times has been its increasing focus on Bellevue and the Eastside at the expense of Seattle neighborhoods. And while the strategy worked to give the Times a subscriber advantage in the ‘burbs (and helped to drive the suburban-focused King County Journal out of business), it also cost the Times dearly in the city, especially as the P-I first increased their neighborhood coverage and then encouraged neighborhood blogging on their reader blog platform. Meanwhile, Josh Feit and Erica Barnett at The Stranger were running circles around the Times city reporters. The future for the Seattle Times is in Seattle. And that means covering Seattle first.
- Hire a real online community manager. While the P-I has kept their reader comment moderation to a minimum, the Times has been very heavy-handed about their commenting system. Neither system works all that well, honestly. What the Times needs is a real, live online community manager, with a name and a face and an e-mail address, and a list of clear, obvious rules. And that community manager needs to make decisions transparently and use the banhammer judiciously but effectively. There’s nothing wrong with using the banhammer as long as it’s used fairly and honestly. And forget the idea that comments on a news story are the same thing as a letter to the editor. They’re not. It’s a web community. Treat it like one.
- Stop treating Seattle’s bloggers like pajama-wearing cranks. And I’m looking at you, Geoff Baker. Your eternal condescension towards USS Mariner and Lookout Landing has grown old in a hurry. Of course, this condescension in part stems from the Times’ ambivalence towards local bloggers. They’re not sure whether to treat them as sources or oddities. I’ve never seen the Times reach out to bloggers the way I’ve seen the P-I do it. Again, this is something else that may account for the P-I’s higher web traffic. (If Hearst does decide to shutter the P-I without an online version, the Times should buy their reader blog platform.)
- Innovate as much as you can. Look for low cost and high return. Throw every idea you have at the online space and see what sticks. Radically rethink print — switch to a tabloid or a Berliner format, use print’s strength in showing large photos and graphics, treat the paper more like a magazine with think pieces than a daily dump of news. Take reporters’ desks away and make them sit in community centers and coffee shops with laptops to file stories. The Times needs to throw everything they can at saving the business. After all, in two years (or less) they’ll be in the same place they’re at now, only with even less capital on hand.
At the end of the day, the only way the Seattle Times is going to become the future of news is to embrace the future of news. And that means a cohesive online strategy that’s reader-centered, open, and transparent. If they take the opportunity Hearst is handing them, they’ll still be around when the online news site business model is viable and merge right into it. If they don’t, either Hearst’s online P-I will roll right over them, or another online news company will push them aside, or they’ll just go belly up on their own.
Hearst is giving you a gift, Mr. Blethen. They’re giving you one last shot at getting online news right. Will you take it? Or would you rather rant about the estate tax some more while your empire burns?
Next up: We know newspapers aren’t profitable, but what about a non-profit newspaper?