Reinventing the Newsroom

No Obit for the Living

Posted in Cultural Change, Digital Experiments by reinventingthenewsroom on March 17, 2009

Today sees the final edition of the print version of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. But it’s not the end of the P-I. That’s something too many well-meaning obits like this one and expressions of sadness and dismay in journalistic circles leave out, or give insultingly short shrift.

This isn’t to say that the move to an online-only P-I is grounds for celebration. That would be horribly callous — there is no celebration when nearly 150 people are forced to give up jobs they loved and pursued with passion and a sense of civic mission, and there is no rejoicing when it looks a lot of the journalism jobs to which those people once aspired are now gone for good. The grand bargain between advertisers and papers that drove “big journalism” for decades may have been a historical accident, as Clay Shirky’s essay made plain (see yesterday’s post for more), but its passing is still something to mourn.

Yet giving the P-I last rites is unfair to the small staff that will carry on in Seattle, and whose experiment in digital-only journalism will be keenly watched in an industry that desperately needs new direction.

Slate’s Jack Shafer is the latest to offer advice to the new P-I, and to ask why Hearst seems to be approaching what should be a bold experiment so half-heartedly. It’s a good question: Hearst is one of the more forward-thinking news companies, yet it hemmed and hawed for an awfully long time about whether the online P-I would even exist, and is launching it with a skeleton staff. That’s putting an awful lot of pressure on a staff that will already be expected to work insanely hard and experiment (with experimentation’s inevitable failures) with the eyes of the journalistic world on it. And if Hearst starves the new P-I instead of nurturing it, it will be harder to counter the position — expressed here by a heartsick P-I reporter — that online journalism is just a vehicle for union-busting.

What can and should be celebrated is that P-I executive producer Michelle Nicolosi’s opening declaration of principles seems wise and bold: “We’re going to break a lot of rules that newspaper Web sites stick to, and we are looking everywhere for efficiencies. … Our strategy moving forward is to experiment a lot and fail fast”. Shafer smacks Nicolosi around for a lapse into memo-ese, but I see nothing whatsoever wrong with her vision. (Full disclosure: I was the greenest, mouthiest intern in the history of the New Orleans Times-Picayune when Michelle was a young reporter there, and she treated me with kindness I doubt I deserved.)

The online P-I will be a critical experiment for figuring out where the newspaper industry needs to go. It’s often considered unseemly for reporters to have a rooting interest, but considering what’s at stake, they ought to have one here. Treating the enterprise like it already died isn’t the best start.

More on the future of the P-I: Advice from the Newsosaur Alan D. Mutter, from other online-only editors via CJR,  thoughts from Ken Doctor at Content Bridges, and good wishes from Recovering Journalist Mark Potts.

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  1. […] As with the Seattle P-I, what’s happening in Ann Arbor isn’t anything to celebrate: The staff of the News is being dismissed and given a chance to audition for a smaller set of jobs that pay less. But that grim situation isn’t unique to Ann Arbor, and to blame the Web transition for it (which, to be clear, Edmonds doesn’t do) would be muddled causality. Ann Arbor’s strategy seems sound, and portraying it as the loss of a print daily strikes me as needlessly retrograde. The daily print paper is indeed going away; the daily journalism, one hopes, is not. leave a comment « Of IPhones and Iran: Thoughts on Batch vs. Real Time […]


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