While today marks the death of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, it also marks the birth of the seattlepi.com as a standalone, Web-only publication. “The creation of seattlepi.com as a standalone digital news and information business,” writes Michelle Nicolosi, the site’s producer, “is a great opportunity for us to try out many of the theories journalism professionals and academics have been throwing around for the past few years.”
With that in mind, we solicited advice for Nicolosi and her staff from editors of fellow online-only news organizations—outlets that, though their funding models may differ from seattlepi.com’s, focus above all on producing quality local journalism. Below, their advice for Nicolosi and the new, all-digital P-I:
Find your niche. “Ensuring the coverage is distinctive rather than duplicative…is key,” writes Geoff Dougherty, editor of the Chi-Town Daily News.
Voice of San Diego editor Andrew Donohue echoes that: “We don’t cover something unless we think a). we can do it better than anybody else, or b). nobody else is doing it,” he says. “It’s about: are you producing the best stories?”
Once you find that niche, be true to your personality. “You can’t try to be everything to everybody,” Donohue says. “And once you realize that, it’s an amazingly liberating feeling—because your old-school newspaper senses train you to run after every ambulance, or chase after every press conference.”
Know your limits. If you don’t, “you’re going to be spread a mile wide and an inch deep, so you’re not going to be really good at anything,” Donohue says. “You might just be okay at a bunch of things.”
Cultivate depth in your reporting. Aim, in your pieces, for “context, authority, and clarity,” Donohue says. “Give people more background and context for the story they’re reading than they can get anywhere else.”
Be wary of breaking news. “Generally, true breaking news is covered well by TV (and the websites of TV stations),” Dougherty writes, “so it’s going to be difficult with a staff of twenty to make a real impression in that area.”
But focus on hard news. “Hard news—who did what to whom in the city’s civic life—is a gold mine for a site like the P-I,” Dougherty writes. “Or a site like ours. TV is too transitory to adequately cover it.”
Use the staff you have strategically. “For the most part I think the idea of having everyone do everything is great,” Dougherty writes of Nicolosi’s everyone-will-work-on-everything editorial model. “But when it comes to editing, that’s not so great. When deadline comes around every hour or two, it’s important to have people who can focus on editing without having to put down the story they’re writing for later that afternoon.”
Use the time you have strategically. “If you go to a press conference for the mayor,” Donohue says, “all the TV stations are going to show up, and maybe the alternative weekly and the newspapers and the wire services. So what good are we really doing there when we could save our reporter those two hours and have her off searching through documents or something like that?”
Experiment. “Anybody who tells you they’ve got the answers is full of shit,” Donohue says. “One of the liberating things—and one of the things that’s helped us out—is the ability and the willingness to experiment with things right off the bat. We don’t have to run anything up any sort of corporate hierarchy, or run it through some big bureaucracy. It’s just, ‘this seems like a cool idea—let’s try it.’ And if it doesn’t work, then let’s not do it anymore; but if it does, then we’ve got a cool new feature on the site.”
MinnPost editor Joel Kramer echoes that sentiment: “Michelle has the right idea—‘experiment a lot and fail fast.’”
Have fun, and take advantage of the opportunity you have. “They are blazing a path right now, in going online-only,” Donohue says of seattlepi.com. “Obviously it’s brought about by their financial situation, but it’s exciting to see somebody try that before their financial situation gets so bad that they can’t do anything but close their doors.”
Focus on quality journalism over everything else. “Local news is a very difficult space in which to make a profit on the Internet,” Kramer writes, “and it’s clear Michelle’s team understands that, because they are planning to operate with a low expense base. That’s not a problem for aggregating other people’s work; the trick will be to create high-quality original journalism with limited resources. I wish them luck.”
So do we.Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.