Seattle P-I Goes Strictly Digital

Wednesday is the first day the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper stands will be empty. Seattle's oldest newspaper is also the first major metro daily to embrace the digital age for its sole home, and will publish exclusively online at SeattlePI.com. It's not entirely by choice; the last print edition rolled off the presses today because of financial difficulties in the industry, made worse by economic recession.

Still, as P-I Publisher and Editor Roger Oglesby told the staff, "the bloodline will live on." The P-I has built a lively online edition that claims 1.8 million unique visitors monthly, and is now redesigning as the P-I's only edition. A much smaller staff of reporters will write, edit, photograph, videograph, record and post, with an emphasis on local news.

This doesn't leave Seattle without a daily newspaper, by the way -- The Seattle Times, the dominant partner in the joint operating agreement under which the two papers shared business resources for more than 30 years, continues to publish a morning edition; and the region is home to other community papers published less frequently and the Web-only startup Crosscut. The Times graciously noted that "though The Seattle Times and the Seattle P-I have been fiercely competitive, we find no joy in the loss of any journalistic voice."

Sad? Sure, it's sad to see a newspaper cease publishing; I grew up reading the P-I, so I speak as a native as well as a journalist. But after working in online media for more than a decade, I'm also eager to see what the digital P-I will produce. This path wasn't even an option probably even five years ago.

When Silicon Valley has layoffs, here's what happens: People take their severance, draw unemployment, and give some more thought to some ideas they've been mulling. Things percolate in garages and spare bedrooms and at user groups. And after that incubation, the Valley starts to quietly buzz as some of those startups emerge and move into the empty commercial space. And the next wave of Silicon Valley businesses begins.

SeattlePI.com is reinventing the city's oldest newspaper. Also, at least two groups of idled Post-Intelligencer employees are brainstorming about setting up independent investigative reporting organizations. They're looking into grants and alternative funding. Similarly, group of former Rocky Mountain News employees is crafting a new site in Denver, where Colorado's oldest newspaper ceased publication in February.

Our sibling publication, InfoWorld, switched to an online-only edition two years ago, after about 25 years as a print weekly. Editor Eric Knorr reports that traffic increased 25 percent in the first year, and that "culturally, we feel much closer to our audience than we did in print." He correctly notes, however, that the challenge is different for general circulation publications and targeted, vertical-market ones like InfoWorld, which caters to IT managers (but which can be read by anyone online).

The P-I is a trailblazer. It's the first major metro daily to adopt an online-only format. Seattle is both one of the national's most literate cities and most wired, so it's promising ground for such an experiment.

Business model? Those ideas are percolating too. Contrary to what the pundits may have said, American newspapers have not "always" relied on advertising; that's a phenomenon of the 20th century. Previously, subscriptions paid the bulk of costs.

And here's inspiration from history: When Benjamin Harris published colonial America's first newspaper, Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick, in 1690, the fourth page of the four-page broadsheet was blank so that readers could update or comment on the news. The very first American newspaper was interactive. Click on.

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