If it walks like a duck, but barks like a dog, it’s a … what? Likewise, if it’s called SeattlePI.com, but staffed by only 20 or so people with the skill set to produce a portal with an attitude, isn’t it really just branding on the cheap?
And branding to what end?
Like a college athletic program that just committed a minor infraction, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, on death watch, self-reported plans for an online staff that would survive the printed version’s post-March 10 demise. As Chuck Taylor noted in his blog, Seattle Post-Times, the presumed SeattlePI.com staff would include 10 editor/producers, one Web developer, one social-media specialist, one columnist, one photographer, one general-assignment reporter and two business reporters. I’m assuming one or two more GA reporters would be added to the mix, as the Seattle P-I story quoted one Metro reporter as having turned down the provisional offer.
Reading between the lines, parent company Hearst offered either Guild (union) exempt personnel (editors and online producers) or younger reporters whom they believed would be so desperate to stay in journalism, they’d agree to slashed salaries, lower benefits, zero severance and zero vacation accrual. Many newspapers, including the P-I’s competitor, The Seattle Times, already have been making a move to cheaper, online and non-union staffing instead of training and shifting current staffers to now-generation, multimedia mode. Enlightened national publications such as the New York Times and Washington Post, of course, have spent considerable time and resources in both retraining and consolidating its print and digital newsrooms.
What would a stripped-down SeattleP.com (a Seattle Post without the Intelligence(r)) offer? It’s already begun to tip its hand by populating its Web site with links to local bloggers and related content. Hearst, no doubt, would leverage its national content from whatever is left of its news stables after the print versions of the P-I and San Francisco Chronicle are laid to rest. I’d expect the P-I to make some strategic alliances with other local content providers, following the lead of its former business columnist, John Cook, who started TechFash.com and smartly tied it to the Puget Sound Business Journal.
The new SeattleP.com would be built on link aggregation, a couple personality bloggers and a small staff that will continually be outgunned by The Times and, spread thin, by smaller dailies, community newspapers and hyperlocal blogs. Like I said earlier — a portal with an attitude. Newspapers around the country already are failing with their more-with-less approach; I guess Hearst’s strategy is trying to do a lot more with a lot less.
This seems like a prescription for a hastened slide into irrelevance, after which the hyperlocal blogs (of which there are several very good ones in Seattle — among others, the West Seattle Blog and My Ballard) will pick the P-I advertising bones clean. Maybe the P-I, having missed the boat on starting its own, will pursue the hyperlocal blogs, though I can’t imagine any of them biting. After all, they are starting to do a lot better job of connecting businesses with consumers, in a manner that has stymied larger media organizations (targeted ad rotations, anyone?).
All of this makes me wonder if Hearst even is serious about an online-only venture in Seattle. Maybe it made its internal, hush-hush announcement and provisional offers as a trial balloon, knowing that journalists, if anything, are consummate, over-the-fence and at-the-coffee-shop blabbers. Now a strategy like that would demonstrate some rare intuition by the floundering newspaper industry.