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Marketplace Scratch Pad

Out of the ashes of newspapers

Scott Jagow Mar 17, 2009

It’s a sad day in Seattle. After 146 years, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer published its last newspaper this morning. The P-I is moving entirely to the web, but there’s no guarantee of success there. Plus, you can’t wrap fish in a keyboard and a monitor.

The P-I is the first big metro paper to stop printing but keep its news brand going online, so this ought to be interesting. The editorial staff is being reduced from 165 to 20 and the website will rely on 150 citizen bloggers to provide content. The question is – where will the revenue come from? Seeking Alpha points out:

Anyone who runs a newspaper should be watching this experiment under a microscope. Someone should even go so far as to obtain copies of the last month of Seattle PI in print and call up every display advertiser and ask them what they plan to do.

Advertisers could switch to the Seattle Times, which is still printing. They could go to Seattlepi.com. They might move their ads to another online source, or they could just stop advertising.

Either way, a new Pew report says Internet ads alone will not sustain the newspaper industry.

Of the $38 billion in advertising that the industry was estimated to have drawn in 2008, only $3 billion came from online. Put another way, roughly half of newspaper readers now access the papers online for at least some of their news. But the Web produces less than 10% of the industry’s revenue.

Pew says newspapers have to get creative with their revenue sources, but most don’t have the capital to quickly change business models. We’ll see how the P-I does.

The Rocky Mountain News shut down last month after 150 years, but its former employees still hope something rises from the ashes. With the help of three entrepreneurs, they’re trying to start their own news site — InDenvertimes.com. They need 50,000 paying subscribers to make a go of it. The site would offer some content for free, but would charge $5 a month or more for other content and features.

I hope it works. I’m as nostalgic about newspapers as anybody, but this should be about journalism, not printing presses. Internet analyst Clay Shirkey says newspapers have reached a point that used to be unthinkable:

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

I couldn’t agree more. And I think former Rocky Mountain News reporter Tillie Fong does too. She hopes to work at InDenverTimes.com:

“I want to be a journalist. This is ‘what I want to be when I grow up. When the Rocky closed, it was traumatic, shocking. It was a hard blow. It was a death.

This is sort of like a phoenix.”

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