Wednesday, March 18, 2009

What will be lacking in Internet-only newsgathering organizations is news

I don’t know much about the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a daily newspaper that died Tuesday. It has been more than two decades since I read a copy, and even then only because I briefly roomed with someone in college who was from Washington state and who read the paper religiously, preferring it to the top-selling Seattle Times.

But the Post-Intelligencer could very well be at the head of the latest “trend” in news organizations wishing to have a life.

THE POST-INTELLIGENCER will cease to exist, but a website at is going to continue. Although it is going to be a far cry from the website that currently exists.

Of the roughly 150 editorial staffers who worked for the Post-Intelligencer until now, about 20 will still have jobs producing a website that attempts to provide copy about public affairs and other issues – and will carry on the image and try to be a link to the history of the newspaper.

Some have speculated that Hearst Newspapers (the outfit that long-ago ran the Herald Examiner in Chicago) is using Seattle as a guinea pig of sorts. If they can successfully create an Internet-based newsgathering organization for that Northwest U.S. city, they could try to convert their other papers in cities such as San Francisco and San Antonio into web-only operations.

And if Hearst could pull off such a change in corporate culture, could we soon see other companies trying to do the same thing?

ARE WE DESTINED sometime in the next year or two to see be turned from a website that publishes the content of the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper to a website that publishes its own staff’s content?

Is Lynn Sweet destined to become the national political pundit based with a website, rather than a Chicago newspaper?

Or is she, along with many other experienced reporter-types, destined to become high-priced “talent” who are a drain on a fledgling web site’s profitability?

Heck, a part of me realizes that my long-term future in the news business depends on whether I can convert this website (and its sister site, The South Chicagoan) into a moneymaking operation – a long-shot concept, at best.

IN THEORY, IT wouldn’t bother me too much to write primarily for my two websites, or to have reporter-types writing for a web site – rather than for a newspaper. Although I personally prefer reading copy on the printed page (rather than getting a headache reading off a computer screen while also having to click from part 1 to part 2 to part 3 and so on for a story of any length), I have come to enjoy the larger potential audience of readers from more than just those who live in the circulation area who can access a newspaper’s copy off of the website.

The problem with this vision is if these operations are never able to get themselves beyond the level of small-scale outfits that can come up with a couple of stories per day – rather than the dozens of stories on many different subjects that newspapers in significant-sized cities come up with every day.

In short, the reason that large city newspapers come off as more impressive than small city publications is because of the staffing level, and the ability to swamp all over a story of any significance with a thorough staff.

A small paper with a small staff often looks cheap, either because they only come up with a couple of stories at a time or because they demand so much copy from each staffer. The mark of a cheap newspaper is one where there are five stories published on a page – and four of them will carry the same reporter’s byline.

THAT IS WHAT I fear will become of some of these web-only news operations. Will truly be able to carry on the same legacy as the Post-Intelligencer with a staff barely bigger than some of the most isolated country daily papers?

And to me, part of the thrill of some of the newsgathering organizations that are withering away these days is that they could cover stories on so many different topics. Too many of the websites that do manage to attract any kind of significant readership are focused solely on one subject area.

That’s fine if you’re looking for the news of that one subject. But there are going to be some of the most significant beats that don’t carry over because few people will want to create a website devoted exclusively to that subject.

Even some of the subjects that do attract readership will suffer some. Take sports.

MOST OF THE sports-related websites I see these days give people a chance to rant and rage about how their local papers don’t bother to pay the ballplayers the proper respect. (How dare they actually look for news and refuse to defer to the athletes in question).

It is the newspapers (not even the television newscasts) that actually have the daily beat writers who travel with the teams. I could picture the sports scene in Seattle needing enough people that it would eat up the bulk of that staffing level of “20” that is destined to be the overall staff of

For those people who think that devoting less effort to sports is an improvement, I’d argue it is a drawback because it is an element that often drew people into the newspaper as a whole – and in its own way provides a cultural amenity to a city.

Be honest. When the White Sox won the World Series four years ago, it was a moment that will be remembered (fondly by Sox fans and with disgust by those people deluded enough to root for the Cubs) as a moment in Chicago history.

AND THERE ARE people to whom the Chicago Bears are more important to the city image than the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or the Art Institute of Chicago (some of the same people who will more than willingly pay $68 for the crummiest seat in Soldier Field for a Bears game are complaining about the Art Institute’s $14 admission fee).

In its own way, even a newspaper manages to become a cultural perk of a city. People like my one-time roommate (whom I haven’t heard from in more than 20 years) were willing to think of papers like the Post-Intelligencer as a part of their personal character in a way I can’t envision anyone caring about a particular news-oriented website.

Now I will be the first to admit that many of the newspaper industry’s financial problems are self-inflicted. Their desire to be monopolies and control so many markets with so few companies means that many took on debt that left them vulnerable to the economic troubles this country now faces.

So there may be some accuracy in the belief that the newspapers have no one but themselves to blame for their troubles. But that doesn’t mean the lesser level of thorough news coverage that we will have access to (and which no website will ever replicate) won’t be missed – even though most of us won’t realize what we have lost until it is too late to save it.


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