Friday, January 16, 2009

Can the Seattle PI survive online?

I heard snippets of an local NPR panel yesterday discussing the online viability of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, one of Seattle's two mass market newspapers. If you haven't heard, Hearst, the PI's owners, have put the paper up for sale, and if it doesn't sell by mid-March (and I don't think that in this economy anyone is holding their breath for the sale of a newspaper) Hearst will either shut the paper down or turn in into an online only publication.

The topic that the panel was discussing was how an online version of the PI could survive. There was lots of talk about how the staff would need to be slashed to about 20 people, which would be a more than 80 percent reduction.

But I also heard a comment suggesting that to survive online, the PI would have to give up local coverage.

I strongly disagree. I suggest that local coverage will be their saving grace. I would even suggest hyper-local coverage. That means coverage of every neighborhood in Seattle, all the time.

But how would 20 staffers do this? That's a lot of work, you say.

The answer is in engaging the citizens of Seattle. The concept actually has a name, citizen journalism, and has been around for many years before the Internet existed.

Here's a documentary about citizen journalism from Cambridge Community Television in the UK.

Of course the Internet brought new life to citizen journalism. It was 1995 when technology reporter Joshua Quittner declared the birth of “Way New Journalism.” I remember where I was when I first read his article, and I try to read it at least once a year. "Look, you know some things are going to have to change around here." Quittner says. "Like journalism, for instance ... I'm talking about a sea change in journalism itself, in the way we do the work of reporting and presenting information."

And that's exactly the point.

As a former newspaper journalist myself I've seen first hand how mass media gets really nervous when there's talk of those regular folks out there reporting the news. And as a trained journalism student who graduated from an accredited journalism school I get that lots of folks don't have the fancy formal training that the "professionals" have.

But the thing about the Internet is that it is a cybernetic system, which means it's self correcting. All of that journalism training had to be in place with a limited press because there were only a few people who got to talk, and it was up to them to be sure that they had some notion of fairness. But today, with technology, there are so many voices out there that the truth will come forth, even if one blog is completely biased.

I have one more thought, and that's that it could very well be the role of the professional journalist to help train the citizen journalist. You see, it's not about dividing professional and citizen content, it's about integrating the two.

The question is, who is going to take the first step forward?

Maybe the Seattle Post-Intelligencer can have at it. I mean, what have they got to lose?

(In full disclosure, I worked as a reporter in the digital division of Seattle's other mass market paper, The Seattle Times, from 1994-1997).

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