Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ironic Destiny

Seattle P-I: the Past | Seattle P-I: the Future


In a historic moment of irony, the final printed edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer also carries the story that may herald the future of news. Instead of the cheap mass-produced newsprint of the past century, news will be delivered as a free customized personal glossary magazine as a vehicle for sponsored advertisement.


{The Past) The Hearst Corp. announced Monday that it would stop publishing the 146-year old newspaper, Seattle's oldest business, and cease delivery to more than 117,600 weekday readers.

The company, however, said it would maintain, making it the nation's largest daily newspaper to shift to an entirely digital news product.

"Tonight we'll be putting the paper to bed for the last time," Editor and Publisher Roger Oglesby told a silent newsroom Monday morning. "But the bloodline will live on."

In a news release, Hearst CEO Frank Bennack Jr. said, "Our goal now is to turn into the leading news and information portal in the region."

The new operation will be more than a newspaper online, Steven Swartz, president of Hearst Newspapers, said. The so-called "community platform" will feature breaking news, columns from prominent Seattle residents, community databases, photo galleries, 150 citizen bloggers and links to other journalistic outlets.

On Jan. 9, New York-based Hearst put the Seattle P-I up for sale and said that the paper would stop printing if a buyer were not found within 60 days.

Despite community concern, no buyer emerged. The P-I lost $14 million last year.

"The thing that should not be missed here is that the P-I is not going away. The P-I is going online," Oglesby said in an interview. "Nobody is happy about the newspaper going away. That's a sad thing. The editorial voice is still going to be here."

About 20 news gatherers and Web producers will stay on with, plus another 20 newly hired advertising sales staff. The publisher will stick around through the transition period, but does not expect to be part of the ongoing online operation.

"Our goal is to just let the quality of the Web site speak for itself," Swartz said in an interview. "We're very excited that the people who are staying with us will continue to evolve and experiment and innovate. The newspaper industry needs more innovation, needs more experimentation, and I think the new is an innovative experiment and I think that the eyes of the country and this industry are going to be on what we do in Seattle."

Bourbon and whiskey

The Seattle P-I's staff has been in limbo for two months. After the closure announcement, breaking news editor Candace Heckman pulled bottles of Georgia Moon Corn Whiskey, Wild Turkey bourbon and George Dickel Tennessee Whisky out of a bag and set them out at her desk.

"I'd been saving that for a while," she said. She'd just sent a "farewell" e-mail to the staff that said, "Come by the city desk for a drink: bring your own glass."

Some staffers who had imbibed ventured outside the newsroom to be met by camera crews and reporters from numerous media outlets. Some laughingly said they regretted things they had said.

Reporter Claudia Rowe, who wasn't drinking, said she got news of the P-I's closure in mid-exam at her obstetrician's office. Due Saturday, she said the news was a blow, even though she was expecting it.

Copy editor Glenn Ericksen, a P-I staffer for nearly 25 years, said he had mixed feelings about the closure. Most recently working as a copy editor, he said, "I'm sad the print product will go away. It's the end of an era, and I'm not sure it's a good thing."

He said the Web "lowers the standard of literacy all around. Who needs copy editors on the Web?"

Normally stoic business wire editor Maren Hunt cried at her desk. "I didn't think I would cry," she said. "I thought I had already moved on and I think you just can't when it happens like this. This really makes me sad, and I knew it was coming. Everyone knew it was coming."

Employees will get severance packages worth about two weeks pay per year worked.

One newspaper town

The P-I closure leaves Seattle with one daily newspaper -- rival and business partner The Seattle Times. Monday's announcement ends the joint operating agreement that has joined the two papers for more than two decades.

The separation of the two entities was "amicable," Swartz said.

Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen responded to news of the closure in an e-mailed letter, writing: "Though The Seattle Times and the Seattle P-I have been fiercely competitive, we find no joy in the loss of any journalistic voice. Today's announcement is an acknowledgement that in the current economy it is a struggle for even a single newspaper to be profitable and impossible for multiple papers in a single market."

Blethen said that being freed from the joint operating agreement, or JOA, that has bound the two papers since 1983 "gives The Seattle Times the best opportunity to be viable long term."

He expressed hope that The Seattle Times "will be able to serve the community with journalism of distinction for many generations to come whether in print, online, or in new platforms not yet imagined."

In an e-mail, Gov. Chris Gregoire said she was saddened by the P-I's closure, adding that she was "especially saddened that most of the newspaper's dedicated staff lost their jobs."

She wrote, "The P-I chronicled everything from the Klondike Gold Rush ... to the evolution of our business sector from Boeing to Microsoft. That's a lot of history."

Attorney Anne Bremner, co-chairwoman of the Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town, e-mailed, "What a terribly sad day this is. Only tomorrow will be worse." The committee fought hard to keep the P-I alive during the four-year JOA litigation that ended in April 2007 but took a lesser role after Hearst announced the paper was for sale.

Hearst had long been expected to buy The Seattle Times, but it became clear in January that the idea had been abandoned. Swartz said that an acquisition wouldn't be prudent, but the decision not to buy the Times was not specific to the Times' finances.

"In no way do we feel that newspapers won't turn around from where they are now, but when you're looking at making acquisitions, you have to look at where could the cash flow fall before it turns," he said. "In the current environment it just didn't seem prudent to be bidding for any newspapers."

Demand for news has not fallen but the revenue model has changed faster than American newspapers can keep up. Thus, falling advertising revenue and the migration of readers to online has rocked newspapers large and small. The Rocky Mountain News in Denver closed in February. The Seattle P-I is the second newspaper to shut down in 2009.

Other major newspaper companies are reducing staff, eliminating bureaus and freezing pay in an attempt to get expenses in line with falling revenue.


Seattle P-I Editor and Publisher Roger Oglesby addressed staff in the newsroom Monday morning. Here are his remarks:

Tonight we'll be putting the paper to bed for the last time. But the bloodline will live on.

Hearst is announcing today that the P-I will become an online-only news operation. The last print edition will appear tomorrow.

We have copies of the press release for you, as well as a letter from (The Hearst Corp. CEO) Frank Bennack and (Hearst Newspapers President) Steve Swartz. But first I have just a couple of things to say.

This is a hard day for all of us. We were fortunate to be part of a great newspaper with a great tradition, and we've been blessed to be part of a wonderful group of talented people. We all hate to see that end.

But we knew it was coming. Hearst fought for years to keep this place going, but time and these rotten economic conditions finally caught up with us.

But there's another part to the story, and I'm not going to let you forget it. It's the part that has to do with what will live on and who's responsible for it. Tomorrow, will be reborn, outside the JOA. It will continue, and it will thrive, and it will be a strong and vital voice of this city for years to come.

Some of you will part of that ongoing effort, and you have an exciting road ahead of you. But we should all remember that everybody at this paper helped to build and the foundation on which its future will rest. Every one of you, everyone at this paper, should take pride in that. I will, and you should, too.

As for the paper, tonight will be the final run. So let's do it right. This is a great newspaper and has been for a long time. Let's show the world it still is. Let's show them what we can do, one more time.

(The Future) Time Inc. is experimenting with a customized magazine that combines reader-selected sections from eight publications as it tries to mimic in printed form the personalized news feeds that have become popular on the Internet.

Called "mine," the five-issue, 10-week experiment also aligns readers with the branding message that its sole advertising partner, Toyota Motor Corp., has for its new Lexus 2010 RX sport utility vehicle: It's as customizable as the magazine carrying its ads.

The magazine is free, but the print edition is limited to the first 31,000 respondents, while an online version is available for another 200,000.

Sign-ups are available immediately at, with the first issue to be shipped in the mail in early April, and then once every two weeks. Online subscribers will get digital editions that look just like the printed version, but in a special format that allows virtual page turns with clicks. A promotional push for the magazine kicks off Friday.

Readers can select five titles from eight published by subsidiaries of Time Warner Inc. and American Express Co.: Time, Sports Illustrated, Food & Wine, Real Simple, Money, In Style, Golf, and Travel + Leisure.

Editors will pre-select the stories that make it into every biweekly issue, and readers won't have the option of changing the picks from issue to issue.

There are 56 editorial combinations in all (the Lexus SUV has 22 customizable settings, plus eight options handled by a dealer). Those who fill out an online survey will also find that advertisements fit their personal circumstances in a form of hyper-targeting.

A sample ad tag line for a respondent named Dave, who lives in Los Angeles and eats sushi, might read: "Hey Dave, your friends will be really impressed when you drive down Van Ness Avenue on your way to get sushi."

Lexus, which came up with the idea, will be the lone advertiser and will buy four full pages of ads for each 36-page magazine.

"I wouldn't call this an ad, this goes much beyond this," said David Nordstrom, Lexus' vice president of marketing. "Our message of 'driver-inspired' and 'customization' will come through a lot stronger."

Without specifying, Nordstrom said the venture did not cost more than other advertising campaigns. He suggested that the potentially higher costs of individualized printing would be worth it if the ads got a better response from a greater number of readers.

Both companies plan extensive research on how consumers react.

Time Inc.'s president of advertising sales and marketing, Stephanie George, said the magazine strikes the right balance between reader choice, advertising and the company's editorial control.

"This is the most unique project that we've ever done that combines their messaging with our magazines," she said. "It also showcases our great edit."

The "mine" experiment represents the latest effort by traditional media organizations to appeal to readers increasingly accustomed to picking and choosing what they read on the Internet. Online advertising, through growing, hasn't generated enough revenue to offset declines in print; personalized print products could help fill some of the gap.

This summer, MediaNews Group, publisher of The Denver Post, the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News and other newspapers, plans to experiment with its own reader-created publication, likely at its Daily News in Los Angeles.

Readers will be allowed to choose specific stories, or those by author, keyword or subject. The customized publication will be laid out like a newspaper and sent with targeted advertisements as a digital "PDF" file for printing at home or viewing on computers or mobile phones. Details on that venture are expected next month.

Joshua Benton, director of Harvard University's Nieman Journalism Lab, remained skeptical of the ventures.

In Time's case, for example, the use of a single advertiser does not allow for targeted marketing the way Google Inc. has succeeded with matching ads to a user's search terms or a site's content. In other words, Lexus won't be selling golf balls and khaki pants even if a reader's editorial picks clearly signal an interest in those products.

A blog on the Nieman site likened the MediaNews innovation to a radio gadget that sent a facsimile newspaper to readers' homes - in 1939. It flopped.

"I'm skeptical that print media are ever going to be able to offer the customized experience that the Internet can," he said, adding, however, it was worthwhile to try the concepts out.

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