Lessons from the Seattle PostGlobe

For start-ups, a love of journalism is not enough

When, in 2009, Hearst announced that it had decided to close the 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the newspaper’s staffers were beset by disbelief, sadness, and imminent unemployment. As staff photographer Paul Joseph Brown wrote for CJR in 2009, the entire experience was “like a divorce from a really good marriage.”

The Seattle PostGlobe, an online news startup founded that spring by former P-I reporter Kery Murakami, tried to fill the void created by the paper’s dissolution. At its peak, the site had a volunteer, part-time staff of thirty former Seattle P-I staffers, many covering the same beats they covered at the paper. It was a project fueled by passion, but had no long-term sustainability strategy. In 2009, Murakami told CJR’s Justin Peters that the PostGlobe’s business plan was “the same as a homeless man on the side of the street, with a sign saying ‘Give us money.’”

Those funding problems made it difficult for the PostGlobe to retain staffers and contributors—Murakami himself left for a full time job at Newsday last year—and by 2011 the site was down to a handful of people. By the spring, the site was basically functioning as a news aggregator, and Larry Johnson, one of the remaining reporters working on the site, says their only hope for redemption was a merger with the Seattle-based Common Language Project.

When that collaboration didn’t go through, it was the end, and Sally Deneen, one of the site’s co-founders, announced the news on July 29th with a post entitled “Goodbye and thank you from the Seattle PostGlobe.”

The conclusion of this venture illustrates an important lesson: passion for journalism alone cannot sustain a news site. “None of us had a business background at all,” says Johnson. “We just wanted to continue writing about the subjects that we loved.”

Johnson says they pursued grants, “sort of,” but didn’t have anyone whose sole job it was to figure out finances. If he could do it over, Johnson says he would not have glossed over the importance of “a partner who understands marketing, and business in general, and has a plan before it starts for how it’s going to work.”

It’s a truth that CJR’s Michael Meyer noticed while editing and writing the over 150 entries that make up CJR’s News Frontier Database. As Meyer wrote in a recent piece for StreetFight: “I worry about the future of my profession when I see large segments of the online news industry failing to rigorously test the kind of revenue models journalism needs to survive.”

Meyer went on to point out that, in many ways, taking journalism seriously inherently means taking the monetization of your news site seriously. With few startup costs required to begin an online-only news outlet, a strong business plan can rank low on the priority list. One of Meyer’s bits of advice encourages journalists to “Remember that you’re building an institution” and not just a place to publish articles. He mentions his experience with sites which decide that producing and publishing content was the first step, only to find themselves now “caught in limbo trying to make it the rest of the way.” He recommends starting off with both a “fully-formed product and a fully-formed business model” since once publishing is underway, the work pile has nowhere to go but up.

Johnson says he is now doing freelance work on the side and looking for full-time work again. He says deciding to end the site was extremely difficult, but by the time he knew what would have provided the site with a chance at longevity, it was too late: “If I knew those lessons then I could have probably made a go at this.”

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , , ,