Lessons on going online-only from SeattlePI

Photo: Pachenks/flickr.

The big, bad day. It has replaced the “Stop the presses!” scream as the essential newspapering experience. A publisher-type gathers the staff to relay the news—layoffs, dropped delivery days, a sale.

For the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the big, bad day arrived March 16, 2009. Print was dead for P-I. For 160-ish of my colleagues, it was the end of their time with Seattle’s No. 2 newspaper.

A handful of P-I journalists and some wily sales folks worked to keep things going online in the heart of the Great Recession. To Hearst Corporation, SeattlePI was an experiment in audience building and online revenue. To our readers, we aimed to be an experience between the staid Seattle Times and The Stranger, Seattle’s licentious alt-weekly. We were best when we were both.

Another big, bad day arrived for SeattlePI this April, when two senior staff members were laid off at the culmination of an 18-month move to place the site under the umbrella of the San Francisco Chronicle’s free website, SFGate. I resigned as senior editor, joining a wave of departures from the 12-person staff.

Making local online news as a reporter, web producer and editor was a blast at SeattlePI. We did a lot right, telling stories worth telling for an audience that near the time I left included about 500,000 regular local readers. And we made plenty of mistakes. Here is what I learned.

 

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Your readers are your fans. Seattle P-I’s last message to its print readers was goodbye. We missed that our readers were our fans, not just consumers of our work. Being a P-I reader was a piece of who they were and they wanted to root for us, winning or losing. In failing to explain ourselves plainly at the transition, we needlessly lost credibility with the public.

Credibility pays. Credibility is any outlet’s core asset. Every search and social win stems from it. Search engines don’t feed readers into newspaper and local TV websites because of the superb user experience. Google, like the Chrome-using readers it mimics, trusts legacy outlets to create and promote strong work. SeattlePI’s fortunes turned when we lost search position in part because we were publishing too much bad third-party content. Other Hearst newspapers pump third-party work on search and social while protecting their better content behind hard paywalls. I can’t say when Google will smack other publishers who use their strong search position to push second-rate work and sponsored content, but I can tell you it packs a punch.

Mediocrity won’t save you. . . One of my colleagues recently complained publicly about a shallow-but-talky weather story we were told to run. The item typified for the staff an emphasis on insubstantial work at the expense of beat reporting. But the bigger problem is that “buzzy” doesn’t build anything. Time and again at SeattlePI, we proved clicky, dim stories use an existing readership without expanding it.

. . . but you can have it both ways. In one of the last great newsroom pouts before the presses stopped, an editor was inconsolable that a local “American Idol” contestant kept making the front page. To him, Sanjaya’s mop signaled the paper’s embrace of frivolity. Other journalists shared similar critiques with me as SeattlePI chased light, high-readership items like Russell Wilson nuptial overshare. But we kept breaking news, even as we delivered fluffier fare. Our beloved news junkies raced past the fluff to get their fix, and were satisfied as long as we made news well.

 

If you knew advertising revenue would disappear entirely in five years, what would you do today? Do that.

 

Get staffers out of their holes. The most moving piece of journalism we made in my time at SeattlePI was a personal reflection on losing a child to cancer written by a staffer who excelled covering UFOs and marijuana. My crime team partner combed the P-I photo archive for lost gems, like this item on a cute couple at the 1962 World’s Fair. A photographer, having turned portraits on dozens of Seattleites living in RVs, wrote a compelling personal essay on the experience. One reporter built a cottage industry out of covering skyjacker D.B. Cooper. Rigid beats bore most reporters, and there is no secondhand market for boredom. Flexibility allows staffers to make meaningful work that delights.

(Re)Build that wall. At Hearst Newspapers, the executive producers of the organization’s free websites are quasi-publishers. They manage aspects of the advertising while making editorial decisions, and get judged on the financial performance of their sites. That blurs the line between editorial and advertising, and leaves readers without an ally in a world where there’s always room for one more video ad on the page.

Examine your readers. We succeeded when we understood the “why” of our readers. It isn’t enough to know a bunch of people read about Amazon. Using the metrics to look at our winning local stories, we identified larger themes playing across them. On breaking news, clarity won. For City Hall, it was conflict . . . and only conflict. On crime, our readers responded best to the experience of the victim or reflections of a perpetrator. Stories landed when they spoke to larger forces in the readers’ lives—largely income inequality and displacement—or their big fears and joys.

Newsrooms make readers, not money. At the end of my time at SeattlePI, the loudest complaint from my colleagues was that they were tired of being told to fix a revenue problem. Attracting and engaging readers is the basic task of a newsroom, and at SeattlePI we dutifully followed our analytics to readers. But slapping dollar values on stories, as SeattlePI’s corporate parent tried to do, pushes reporters away from subjects that engage readers toward those that may have a higher dollar return per reader. It is not the math the public thinks we are doing when we decide what information they need.

Answer this question: If you knew advertising revenue would disappear entirely in five years, what would you do today? Do that. Our failure at SeattlePI to develop alternative revenue sources left us in a position where we were constantly upping the ad ante. It bogged down our site, annoyed our readers and didn’t stabilize the business. Build out the events and non-profit support, sure, but don’t forget your readers. Give them a chance to do more than subscribe or tune in. They are big fans. They’ll buy in.

ICYMI: Betting on the success of local journalism

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Levi Pulkinnen is a Seattle-based journalist covering the Pacific Northwest for the rest of the world. Formerly a reporter and editor with SeattlePI, Pulkkinen’s work has been cited in The New York Times, published in The Guardian, and San Francisco Chronicle, and posted on the bathroom wall of at least one brewery.