Can The Internet Save Local News?

As Seattle's Post-Intelligencer becomes an online-only venture, one observer thinks the new business model might point the way to a rebirth of local news. Alan Mutter, author of the blog "Reflections of a News-o-saur," shares his thoughts.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX COHEN, host:

And I'm Alex Cohen. Today, the Seattle's Post-Intelligencer appears in print for the very last time. From now on, the newspaper will be a news Web site. Like papers throughout the country, the PI, as it's known, has been suffering serious financial problems. For more on the future of newspapers we turn now to Allan Mutter; he is a former newspaper editor. He now writes a blog called Reflections of a Newsosaur. He joins us from San Francisco. And Allan, we've seen, throughout the country, newspapers slashing their staff, there is talk that the San Francisco Chronicle might not be around much longer. What do you think newspapers need to do to survive in this day and age?

Mr. ALLAN MUTTER (Blogger): Newspapers today, unfortunately, do have to cut their costs quite a bit because their advertising has fallen by somewhere between 25 percent and 35 percent in the last three or four years. Partly as a result of the economy lately but even before that, newspaper advertisers were moving in other directions because it was cheaper to advertise online - anywhere from Craigslist to Autotrader, Monster and so forth. So, the situation we have today is that newspapers do have to try to cut their costs at the same time they find new sources of advertising revenue to replace those that they have lost, and that's going to be very difficult given the state of the economy at the moment.

COHEN: You recently wrote a memo on your blog to the Seattle PI, giving them some advice as they move forward online. What did you suggest?

Mr. MUTTER: Well, what I suggested is they can't be the same sort of news organization in the future as they are today. The Seattle PI had a staff of about 160 people. They now have a budget for 20 people. So they will not be able to go to all the meetings, cover all the beats, be at the police station 24/7 to watch what's going on in town. Rather, they're going to have to stylize their coverage. They're going to have to pick their shots, and they're going to have to use content from other sources. And in fact, they've announced this morning that they're going to be getting content from many of the magazines published by their parent, Hearst Corporation, as well as linking to what they say is going to be 150 local bloggers. So, they will be aggregating content, organizing content, stylizing content, and then they'll have some of their own signature coverage from their own people. I think that's going to be the future, certainly for online coverage for newspapers. It will be different than the type of coverage that newspapers have done in the past because in the past, newspapers have tried to put their own touch on every story and to provide deep and authoritative coverage across a broad range of matters in a community. So, it's going to be different going forward into the future.

COHEN: Well, here is one of the concerns I know that I have - and a lot of fellow journalists have - is, OK, it all sounds well and good to get a bunch of free content from bloggers, but how do journalists, quality journalists survive if we're not getting paid for a work?

Mr. MUTTER: A journalist - a good journalist is certainly worth as much as a good neurologist, as far as I'm concerned. Quality journalism, where people are deeply and objectively reporting, providing a balanced analysis of what they find and presenting it in a compelling way - I think those things are awfully important, now more than ever, because in this world, anybody anywhere can create content, anybody can put up a video, put up a blog. Anybody can jump into Wikipedia and change facts. Now more than ever, we need people who are operating from a professional standpoint in front of the professional values that journalists have. And when a newspaper goes away, these other types of media - blogs, newspaper, even NPR - don't quite fill the gap that's left when a newspaper and its large staff goes out of business.

COHEN: Allan, one last, quick question. There's a picture on your blog of those very distinctive, bright-orange delivery boxes for the Seattle PI. Where do you think all those will go?

Mr. MUTTER: I hope they're properly recycled.

(Soundbite of laughter)

COHEN: It's a sad, sad day. Allan Mutter, his blog is called Reflections of a Newsosaur. Thank you very much.

Mr. MUTTER: Thank you.

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Hearst Ends Seattle Newspaper's 146-Year Run

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is the latest casualty in the American newspaper industry. The final edition of the city's oldest daily hits newsstands Tuesday. But the P-I isn't disappearing entirely; it'll be published online only.

Everyone in the newsroom and readers across the city knew the paper's demise was imminent. Its owner, Hearst Corp., said two months ago that the P-I would be put up for sale, adding that the city's No. 2 paper would close if no buyer were found. On Monday, Hearst made it official, announcing that the next day's edition would be the last to roll off the presses.

Joel Connelly, a veteran P-I columnist and political writer, said that when he came to the paper in the early 1970s, it was blowing the whistle on a gambling payoff system that reached deep and high, into the courthouse and city hall.

"Nearly 40 years later, I see the paper blowing the whistle on the golden parachute for the managing director of the port of Seattle, so there's a continuity of what this paper has stood for, what this paper has fought for," Connelly said.

David McCumber, the paper's managing editor, calls it an amazing, wild and enterprising place. McCumber, who has been in journalism for the better part of 40 years, says he is grateful for his time at the paper.

"This staff is like family; it really is like family," he said.

Walking through the newsroom and watching journalists do what they love brought him joy; now, he says, there's the pain of losing talented staff.

"I'm sad for the industry," he said. "It's not just us — it's that the industry can't seem to find a way to make journalism work, and people need it — democracy needs it."

The newspaper industry is struggling financially. The advertising-fueled revenue model no longer works. People and ad dollars are migrating to the Web. So Hearst will launch an experiment — making the P-I an online-only format.

University of Washington journalism professor David Domke suggests that it makes sense to try it in Seattle, a city that is highly wired and highly literate.

"P-I is going to be a test case for major metro," Domke said. "Daily newspapers: Can they go online? Can they survive and maybe even thrive if they change the kind of news and their definition of news that they deliver to the public?"

Only about 20 newsroom staffers are moving to the new venture — a couple of others will provide sports columns on a regular basis. Along with staff reports on hard news, there will be lifestyle content from Hearst-owned magazines and a lot of blogs. Long investigative pieces probably won't find a home. In short, its content won't resemble that of the hard-copy newspaper.

P-I reader Bill Laub is one of many customers dining at the Elliott Bay Cafe who said they were saddened by the demise of the 146-year-old newspaper.

"It seems tragic that we are heading toward a world of USA Today and generic papers that don't have a local flavor — that don't have the voice and the flavor of local communities guiding them," he said. "It's just crazy." He added that he doesn't intend to read the online edition.

The demise of the Post-Intelligencer is not expected to do much to bolster the finances of the Seattle Times, the city's surviving daily newspaper. It, too, is in serious financial trouble.

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