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: