This past week the first of America’s major metropolitan newspapers has made the decision to cease print operations and transform itself into an online only news organization. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer RIP, long live www.seattlepi.com — if only it could be true.
If you’re interested in the details, you can read a very thorough article in the WSJ by Shria Ovide. Essentially, advertising revenue is down, the paper is losing over $14 million annually and Hearst is pulling the plug.
Except they’re not pulling the plug — they’re firing most of the staff and making it a web-only enterprise. This, apparently, is in the name of science.
They are going to experiment a little bit and see if there’s some stripped-down business model that they can cookie-cut and apply to all of their ailing newspaper properties.
Wow! What a bad idea. It would be much smarter to close up shop and send everyone home. Why?
Let’s review: first and foremost, newspaper companies are not in the content business, they are in the advertising business. And, as I have often said in this column, they are really in the business of killing trees, mashing them up, putting ink on them and delivering them to your door in gas-guzzling trucks.
That being said, there is a small amount of content that is original and there is certainly a gigantic amount of value added by the editing and filtering of information that each major newspaper is famous for.
So why would the very smart people at Hearst do something as dumb as setting up the seattlepi.com to fail? The mind verily boggles. Here you have editors and editorial staff that can add value to information and turn it into knowledge. You have an electronic news-gathering organization that is designed and built to fill up a newspaper that can keep the daily attention of 118,000 people. You have a real opportunity to create a “real” model for the future of branded, filtered, news distributed not WiwWiwWiw (What I want, When I want, Where I want) but “right person, right place, right time.” And, instead, you decide to cut the staff to nothing and sunset the organization by letting it die a slow, agonizing death.
This is horrible on a number of levels. As other newspapers watch seattlepi.com gasp its last breaths, they will assume that Hearst has done everything it can to make it work. They will indict the model and draw the bold (and in this case not completely wrong) conclusion that it is not possible to make money with online content. If you are in the business of distributing digital media, this should make your blood boil.
I hate everything about this. Here we have a major media company that is privately held and does not have to answer to fickle Wall Street investors, the SEC, public shareholders or even public opinion. Here we have an opportunity to completely rebuild the Seattle Post-Intelligencer into a modern, dual-revenue stream digital distribution engine. But no, Hearst has decided to sunset it in the most unceremonious way — they will kill it, just to watch it die.
I am truly crestfallen.
It is easy to understand why Hearst has decided to do this. It’s the easy way out. So many things have gone extinct in the name of cost-cutting. But here’s the thing. What if you make a serious investment in the tools and technology required to be a super-efficient purveyor of electronic information? What if you built the underlying technology to deal with self-serve advertising, measurable syndicated content, leveraged social media and added enough value to maintain certain aspects of the dual-revenue model. What if you created a new, emotionally satisfying user interface (iTunes for information) that people actually enjoyed using? What if you created an alternative to web-surfing that was so easy and so organized that getting your news from seattlepi.com was a new preferred behavior? What if? What if? What if?
Sadly, we will never know. Seattle Post-Intelligencer, RIP. www.seattlepi.com, so sorry to hear of your untimely demise.