The death of the Post-Intelligencer

It’s pure coincidence that I happen to be in Seattle today when the news hits the city, and the rest of the planet, like a sledgehammer:

 

SEATTLE – The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which has chronicled the news of the city since logs slid down its steep streets to the harbor and miners caroused in its bars before heading north to Alaska’s gold fields, will print its final edition Tuesday.

Hearst Corp., which owns the 146-year-old P-I, said Monday that it failed to find a buyer for the newspaper, which it put up for a 60-day sale in January after years of losing money. Now the P-I will shift entirely to the Web.

"Tonight will be the final run, so let’s do it right," publisher Roger Oglesby told the newsroom.

Hearst’s decision to abandon the print product in favor of an Internet-only version is the first for a large American newspaper, raising questions about whether the company can make money in a medium where others have come up short.

Read more here:

http://tech.yahoo.com/news/ap/20090316/ap_on_hi_te/seattle_p_i 

 

There have been talks about this shift for weeks by Hearst, but the move came fast and swift. The newsroom size will be pared down from 181 to 40.

In Asia, newspapers have yet to face this sort of dire situation, but it might be a matter of time. One reason is that most advertisers in Asia have yet to migrate their advertising to online and still rely heavily on traditional media to send their messages to the public. Also, broadband penetration is low in many Asian countries, so the people still rely on traditional media for their news.

But the switch from analogue to online by vendors is accelerating, and the big question is whether the Asian newspapers are even able to imagine switching to a fully-online platform.

It’s a bit of a “who blinks first” situation: Newspaper owners claim that there is no business model online that will provide the same revenues that they are earning today. But if they don’t come up with any viable business model soon, the advertisers will not wait and switch mediums instead. What’s for sure is that ad revenue share for print has contracted and may never go up.

This past few months have already seen Singaporean journalists experience pay cuts, frozen bonuses, hiring freezes, and forced unpaid leave. It’s extremely painful (I went through something like this in 2002 when I first started full time work in SPH) for any media professional because many of them pour everything they have into their jobs. But for all the effort that they give, they are now being told that they are costing too much to maintain, so cuts have to be made.

In my time as a journo, which wasn’t so long ago, most young rookies in the newsroom didn’t really know how the newspaper business worked until they went for the internal orientation that brought all divisions together. Many didn’t even know where the marketing division resided within the same building.

Their job, as far as they were taught, was to bring in the best stories and rightly so. But they didn’t understand that in Singapore, it was advertisements that opened up more pages so their stories could find space to be published. Circulation revenue alone is not enough to drive profit in a small country.

Today, you’ll see journalists interacting with ad sales people more. This would have been taboo in the past, but even then, there are those who feel that this is happening too late. From 2003-2007, I got involved with the marketing side of things as I sought to commercialize my tech section within TNP. One time, I was criticized by one senior editor for “pandering to advertisers” and asked to switch to the marketing division instead. All because I said some personality columns were better replaced with special project pages since the former were so dully written. Never tell an editor his pages are boring!

Well, today the same editor is being tasked with bringing in more ad revenue. 

I don’t claim to have foreseen this perfect storm of economic depression and accelerating change of media use. Nobody could have done so. At that time, and until recently, I simply assumed that editorial and sales had to work closer together to deal with the Internet and the shift in advertising mix.

And older journalists would often say “Oh newspapers will continue to co-exist with new media, just like radio did after television was invented!”. Like what we learnt in mass communication classes at NTU.

But the quick death of the print edition of the Post-Intelligencer will leave many media folks reeling. The assumption that printed newspapers would continue to exist is still an assumption, and the collapse of the financial institutions has shown us that anything is possible during these surreal times. People might say, what do you care, Ian, you’ve crossed over to the PR side. But I started my career as a journo, and I still live and breathe like one every day (much to the puzzlement of non-media folks).

I don’t have answers to the gigantic problem, but I do know what I want as a media junkie in my daily read. If you’re a media owner, please hear me out here without prejudice.

1. I desire to read great writing and stories. Journalism is much harder than it looks. But today, read the glut of stories online and you realise that too many journos only know how to report well, not write well. For too long, mass market journalism has fallen into a rut where getting the story was more important than telling it well. Well, in the Internet age, the story reaches people so quickly, the only thing that matters is how it moves people. Journalism is an art, not a science.

2. I want to read local news. Yes, being hyper-local works. Because when news syndication means global news is mass distributed, there’s no reason why I want to read the World pages in a newspaper when I’ve already read it the night before. But hyper-local doesn’t mean reading dull stories about the Gahmen lah, or some auntie getting her money stolen in a lift.

3. I want journalists I desire to follow and respect. I asked a friend recently: “Name me one journalist you cannot pass a week without reading because his writing is either so good or his stories so impactful.” He named a local humor columnist, but couldn’t remember what was the last story he wrote. Till today, I can remember specific columns by Lee Han Shih and Christopher Tan for their impact on me. You don’t have to be controversial to be a great journo, you just need to make a valid point and make it stick/resonate.

4. Stop giving space to useless fluff. That means whiny columnists who keep retreading the path of how lonely it is to be without a man, or writers who engage in incredible navel gazing. In case you didn’t know, there are MILLIONS of bloggers doing that right now. And they have very little readers.

5. I’d pay for good and timely content. But that content must be made free after a day or two because it needs to be archived by the search engines to remain relevant forever. Media who lock up their content to non-subscribers do not have a permanent place on the Internet. Many media owners believe that by holding information tight to their chests, they can continue to extract revenue out of it.

6. Listen to the young ones. Let’s face it – if you aren’t blogging regularly, or reading blogs, if you don’t Facebook, if you don’t use instant messaging, and if you ask why is Wikipedia trustworthy, you don’t know the Internet. Young journos may not have the business experience to run an online publications, but media owners ignore their feedback at their own risk. Some of the best online publications I’ve seen are run by young journalists, and they’re kept in line by senior editors who may not understand the technology, but give their full trust to the junior crew to navigate through the mess that is the Internet.

A newspaper always thrives on utter passion, change, verve and talent. And as many have seen in the past decade, astute business management. As I mourn the Post-Intelligencer, I hope the other newspapers quickly figure out what to do because once they disappear, I highly doubt they will be replaced by any other media as respectable or credible.

(This post originally appeared on www.iantan.org)

8 Replies to “The death of the Post-Intelligencer”

  1. Hi Ian, this was a realy, good read.

    A good read when you actually read every sentence instead of just glancing and skimming.

    Cheers and thanks.

    Gerard

  2. Thanks Gerard, like everyone who used to, or continue to work in the newsroom, I’m really watching the latest developments closely. And I believe nobody’s happy with the way things are being managed by the you-know-whos.

  3. Love yr bit abt whiny spinsters/boh liao personal columns. I miss articles by Richard Lim and David Kraal, makes you sit up and think, unlike all the crap (especially Life) we have in the papers nowadays. Great article on yr part.

  4. Nice article. You’re one of the very rare people I know who understand business concepts amazingly well, for a journalist.

    These dying newspapers are not playing to their unique strengths.

    Local content

    I strongly agree this point. Local news naturally attract local readers. That’s the only differentiating factor local papers have. It’s amazing management can miss this, all because they don’t know who the competition is.

    Locking content

    The Internet is the ultimate distribution media, and as a result, is a tremendous tool to create exposure. This exposure can help make people interested in buying local papers. Again, this is either missed by decision makers, or they absolutely don’t have ideas on making use of it.

    A marketing problem

    Ultimately, it’s also a marketing problem. If one’s in the newspaper industry saying they are selling newspapers. They are dead. They should be selling stories people care about, selling access to convenience (of finding jobs via classifieds etc).

    Listen to the young ones.

    Actually listening is just half of equation. The other half is sorting out those ideas and eventually executing them. Most just listen and that’s all. What a waste of people’s time.

  5. Thanks Yi Chie, I guess I grasp the business aspects better because I had to learn it the hard way when I was running the Tech section.

    How do you make a technology section in a tabloid earn revenue? How do you work with ad sales people when you have no track record? How do you convince advertisers your tabloid audience is worth selling to? From there, I figured out the bigger picture for myself. Today on the PR and marcoms side in an MNC, I see the POV from the client side, so the picture is even clearer now what the media ought NOT to do.

    Trust me, it was very painful to learn all of it by trial and error and back then. What really hurt was when people always say “Hey all you do for the tech section is just play with gadgets and games and write reviews right? What an easy job!”

    Actually, today people also say “Hey, all you do as an Xbox PR guy is play games right? What an easy job!”

    Oh well.

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