And the envelope, please: How many people does it take to run an online-only metro news site?
The answer appears to be 22, a number some occultists are said to believe holds psychic powers. Hearst, psychic, who'd a thunk it? That's the number I've heard from outsiders and that's the approximation we're seeing leak out of Seattle as the stories surface of who will be among the chosen to move online and who will be riffed. (Writing about death throes is now getting to be a modern art form, here ably done by the PI's own Dan Richman; next new Pulitzer category?).
Now 22 is an interesting number. Let's do the math. The PI starts with 170 newsroom staffers. Online-only, it moves to 22, which would be 12.9% of its print staff. That's a number worth remembering.
As the Christian Science Monitor, the Capital Times, the East Valley Times and the Detroit papers, among others, all engaging in one form or another of flipping the switch (going from print to digital) or dayscrapping (reducing the days of print publication or delivery), I've often gotten this question from the press: "Why don't papers just go online-only?" We talk about the economics of print vs. online vs. hybrid, and I've guesstimated that if metro dailies indeed flipped the switch, they'd be able to "afford" about 15% of their newsroom staffs. So that 12.9% number confirms my guess. With metros taking in 10%-plus of their revenues from digital advertising now, that's about all the current business will support.
It's a sobering number.
Let's figure there are 44,000 journalists left in US newsrooms, an up-to-date tally hard to come up with. So, if the industry magically flipped that switch tomorrow, we've got an estimate of how many online-only published could pay: 6600 journalists, and that's at the optimistic 15% number. Of course, many papers don't need to and won't flip the switch; recall that the US news industry should still take in $36 billion+ in revenues this year (down from $47 billion in 2005). But the number -- 6600 -- sticks in your brain.
Let's compare that number of 22 to a couple of others. One of the online-only PI's new competitors is Crosscut, a site with great verve and and newspaper roots of its own. It supports a staff of seven, after having just moved from profit-(seeking) to non-profit. If you talk to the start-ups from MinnPost to Voice of San Diego, they'll tell you something less than a dozen can be supported, and that's with foundation support.
The P-I, of course, has a few things the start-ups don't:
- Deep Hearst pockets, which can afford to really use Seattle as testing ground;
- Presumed ad relationships. Yes, I know the Seattle Times-controlled JOA has run the business side, to the ever-grating chagrin of the PI, but the PI people should know people who buy advertising or at least know people who know people who buy advertising. It starts with four million unique visitors, a number that you equally argue will soar or plummet. (Crosscut counts 75,000 uniques.) Hearst's ability to sell national advertising on to the site, through the Yahoo News Consortium and QuadrantONE, is watchable. Here, we'll also see what such a venerable brand -- the 146-year-old Post Intelligencer means online.
- Hearst relationships: It's a big, diversified company with interests in newspapers, cable, broadcast and tech-oriented Ventures plays. It just hired Neeraj Khemlani to act as Internet strategist for whole company. We don't know how that is playing with new Hearst news chief Steve Swartz or longtime web stalwart Lincoln Millstein, who runs Hearst News digital, (and I'm guessing they don't yet, either). Expect some synergy though. One potential: Hearst (which has been busy) just signed a company deal with Helium, a writing community site that also provides tools for local publishers to harness local user-gen. (Content Bridges post: "Freelance Organizer Helium May be User-Gen 2.1 for News Sites.")
- Top editors who get it: Michelle Nicolosi has run the PI's website, and she gets the web. She recognized the threat and promise of West Seattle Blog, for instance, and the site has better embraced community and staff blogging more than other daily sites. If David McCumber, the PI's top editor, stays on, the site will have a veteran editor who is ahead of his peers in understanding digital. He helped pioneer industry-leading blog coverage of Microsoft and of Northwest venture capital, before those bloggers alighted to business journal competition.
So, as it looks like the final PI will join the final Rocky within the next several weeks. As the first metro to flip the switch, it'll be lab we'll watch with anticipation. Lots of interesting angles, but here's three bigger ones:
- First, how will they organize it? How much PI content? How many community links in smart aggregation? How much multimedia? Who will they partner with? Steve Outing's January in-depth look at the question is quite timely.
- Will it be free? We've kind of assumed the answer will be yes, but Steve Swartz' leaked memo on finding ways to charge for some online content muddies the water. I'd expect that since the online PI doesn't have to "protect" a print PI, the answer is that it will be a free site, growing or shrinking on the basis of ad sales. (Mark Potts' new math on why sub sites don't add up.)
- So what's a reporter and what's a blogger? We've got hundreds of examples of blogging reporters and thousands of reportorial bloggers. Yet, there is still an unease about the two terms. Such experiments will flesh out that unease and may blaze new high-profile editorial paths.