OFF THE GRID

The Old News Becomes New—or Tries

Mar 17, 09 | 9:23 AM   byMichael Wolff
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The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a terrible paper, will print its last edition today and then become an exclusively online product. Will it be a better Internet site than it was a newspaper?

That would not be difficult. The actual paper, with its 165 news employees, was a low-to-middling performer for local news and not in the game at all when it came to national news. True, it might not be so much worse than any other chain-run (the PI is owned by Hearst), 100,000-or-so circulation newspaper in the country. But that’s merely to say that the overwhelming number of US newspapers gave up the ghost years ago. They’ve felt and looked like relics long before this past year, when virtually everyone acknowledged that formal status.

So online.

To date, the PI site looks terrible. If possible, it looks worse than the newspaper has looked. It looks like the newspaper looked in about 1965—hemmed in by lots of type. It’s disorganized, unfocused, and agonizingly bland. Still, this isn’t, theoretically, what the new product will be. What’s on the site now still reflects what’s in the paper. And there won’t be a paper. What’s there is the product of 165 news people and the news site will be the product of just 20 news people.

That will likely make it a better site. In general, eight times more people at an American newspaper produce stuff that is at least eight times longer and eight times more boring than it has to be. For many years now, in any American newsroom the sound you hear—there being no typewriters or printing presses anymore—is the strangled hum of anxiety mixed with deep paralysis. Pure existential nothingness. Everybody is there filling the column inches of this odd receptacle, or ungainly format, or daily void that most people in the country have no use for—indeed, no idea how to use anymore. Or why they should want to use it.

On the Internet at least you don’t have to fill the column—shorter is bound to be better when you don’t have much to say.


(AP Image)

Now, in print, the Seattle PI only had to compete with the Seattle Times, another terrible paper. On the Internet, the Seattle PI will have to compete with, well, everybody. If it felt existential dread in its print life, it ought to feel it so much more in its digital life. Indeed, what is its purpose here?

Sure, the purpose of an online news site is to use the advantages of technology to find and sift and focus information into a more efficient and accurate product. But the people who worked at that business formerly called a newspaper tend to know really very little about technology. The curve online is steep and so, so many people are ahead of them.

Which leaves the old-fashioned job: reporting the local news. This, however, is a skill set that local newspapers have, over recent years, in large measure given up.

And then there are the economic realities of online news. It’s not all bad. The Seattle PI claims traffic of about 1.8 million unique users a month, which is just about the number of “uniques” we serve here at Newser—and we think we’ll be profitable this year (even in this horrible year). But we have 15 employees and the Seattle PI is saying it will have—after it adds 20 business people to the existing 20 news people—40. Hmmmm.

Still, the future is the future. And we here at Newser look forward to linking evermore to the PI and its coverage of Seattle.

More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column.
He can be emailed at michael@newser.com

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