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Newspaper Execs: Still Sleepless in Seattle

  |  March 20, 2009   |  Comments

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is going all-online. Will it succeed?

I remember most the brilliant sparkle of the Seattle harbor that spring day in 1994 when Seattle Post-Intelligencer publisher J.D. Alexander told me he wanted his newspaper's online edition to dominate western Washington State in general, and archrival The Seattle Times in particular.

Alexander's office overlooked the bustling harbor, and on a sunny day like that, anything seemed possible. He was nationally renowned as an editor and publisher.

I was working for Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., which that previous December had bought Delphi Internet Services Corp. of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the world's original ISP to consumers (talk about business opportunities!). Murdoch had recently cobbled together the Fox network from small TV stations and now wanted to use tiny Delphi as a foundation for a proprietary online services company that could dominate CompuServe, Prodigy, and America Online. My job was to enlist magazines and newspapers such as The Seattle Post-Intelligencer to provide content for this endeavor.

Within 18 months, Murdoch's online endeavor would be doomed by corporate mismanagement and the rise of the World Wide Web. But what impressed me that day in Seattle was Alexander's audacity in proposing an online venture that immediately seemed doomed to failure despite the dawning possibilities of a world of news online.

The problem that day, and for the next 15 years, was Alexander's newspaper and its archrival had been shackled together since 1983 in a joint operating agreement (JOA). A JOA is an exemption to federal anti-trust laws and an attempt to save newspaper competition in cities with more than one daily but not enough of a market to support more than one daily.

The terms of the JOA mandated that The Seattle Times sell the advertising for both papers and print both on its press. However, this JOA predated online and certainly had no provision for online publishing. Moreover, online advertising didn't even exist in 1994.

Alexander and I presumed that advertising would be the mechanism to generate revenue for online editions, but on that day he told me that The Seattle Times executives had indicated to him that they would neither sell online advertising for his newspaper nor permit the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to sell online advertising under the general advertising terms of the JOA.

"Then how are you going to support an online edition without advertising?" I asked.

"I don't yet know," he replied. "I was hoping that [News Corp.] could help me figure that out. I worry that even if my paper could sell online advertising, I suspect that online advertising wouldn't generate enough money for what I want to do online."

Alexander spent the next 90 minutes outlining his plans for putting his newspaper's content online and building a site that heavily featured outdoor activities, offered each of the Seattle region's municipalities online space, and provided B2B (define) information for companies in the Seattle region.

Neither Alexander nor I nor anyone at News Corp. or the Seattle Post-Intelligencer figured out how to launch and fund such a widespread online endeavor. Within two years, News Corp.'s own online efforts would, for all practical purposes, cease (becoming dormant for nearly a decade).

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer would launch only a news site, one that dominated its rival The Seattle Times, but it wasn't fully self-sustaining and as grand as Alexander's vision. Alexander retired in 2000 and died five years later.

I thought of him recently when I read about the Seattle Post-Intelligencer ceasing print publication and trying to publish only online. I think, too, of Michelle Nicolosi, who in 2004 was editor of the University of Southern California's Online Journalism Review, where she published my 4,000-word online essay, "What Newspapers and Their Web Sites Must Do To Survive."

The following year, she joined the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and last week was named the editor of its online efforts. Earlier this year, her newspaper and The Seattle Times ended their JOA.

Little has changed in Seattle. Seattle Post-Intelligencer executives are still trying to figure out if their online site will be able to sustain itself. The site is hiring an online advertising staff.

But the questions remain about whether the site will be able to do more than just publish traditional newspaper content online. The people trying to solve those problems are as sleepless as the folks who were trying to figure them out almost 15 years ago were then.

The only real difference: there's no more print edition content for the staff of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to put into an online edition. Executives at that newspaper's parent company, Hearst Corp., have lots of experience shoveling print-edition newspaper content onto their sites but basically no experience at having their sites create that content. Moreover, they've now cut the reporting staff of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer from approximately 165 to 20.

The more breathless digerati are hailing this online-only endeavor as the future of the newspaper business. And I agree that there are few more competent people in the world to take on this challenge than Nicolosi. However, I think Hearst Corp. has set her up for failure.

I'm glad my friend Alexander, who truly believed in the possibilities of online editions and in his Post-Intelligencer, isn't alive to see them do it.

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Vin Crosbie

As managing partner of Digital Deliverance LLC and publisher of the "Digital Deliverance" newsletter, Vin Crosbie advises news media worldwide about new media strategies and tactics. As adjunct professor of visual and interactive communications and senior consultant for executive education in new media at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, he teaches that wisdom to graduate students and media company executives. "Folio" magazine called him "the Practical Futurist." "Editor & Publisher" magazine devoted the overview chapter of its executive research report "Digital Delivery of News: A How-to Guide for Publishers" to his work. And his speech about new media to the National Association of Broadcasters annual conference was one of 24 orations (including some by President George W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, Hilary Clinton, and Barack Obama) selected by a team of speech professors for publication in the reference book, ">Representative American Speeches 2004-2005."

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