Will Seattle become a one newspaper town? Seattle PI put up for sale

We got the saddest news over the weekend, Seattle’s oldest newspaper, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, is being put up for sale by the Hearst Corporation. If no buyer is found in 60 days, they can close it down.

This is just the tip of the iceberg for other papers, of course, and many, if not most of our newspapers are in the same situation. With readership down, many businesses don’t want to advertise, and classifieds are practically dead.

It will be a challenge to make papers relevant and provide information that one can’t get elsewhere, keeping subscriptions up, to lure advertisers.

Several features still seem to be popular. In Sunday’s paper, the advertising circulars there are unrivaled. Even with online coupons, the ad circulars remain popular. Cars. The car section is still huge. And real estate open house schedules. There is still no other comprehensive online equivalent.

As many have noted, the separation of the advertising and editorial departments have often lead to journalists digging their own grave. Yet what is the alternative? You often see book reviewers referring to some book on Amazon instead of a neighborhood bookstores website, a neighborhood bookstore that might actually buy advertising.

Our local newspaper real estate section is constantly referring to Zillow and Redfin and Trulia, calling up their executives for a quote, instead of calling the CEO’s of the local traditional real estate firms, the ones who actually buy ads every single week.

John Cook, who has a new tech site called Tech Flash, spent a good part of his career at the Seattle PI and writes about his take on the potential PI sale and says “It’s a sad day for us here at TechFlash.”

In his tech column John continually championed Redfin and Zillow, promoting, fawning, citing, quoting. Yet I can’t remember a single ad they ever bought in the Seattle PI. He’s continuing his romance at the Puget Sound Business Journal, granting column space to Redfin’s CEO to wax melodic about whatever flavor of the day catches his fancy. It’s one thing to report, it’s quite another to promote and pimp.

Of course, we don’t want our journalists to check the list of advertisers before they set pen to paper or fingers to the keyboard. But selective reporting, ommissions and failure to check facts has the same result and is just as bad as being openly biased.

It’s easy to see how the same thing that’s happening at the PI could happen to the Business Journal, though the PSBJ has something that some folks want in the form of detailed residential and commercial property sales, permits, liens and bids, so they will probably be able to keep a good portion of their subscription base. But if that can be found easily online sometime in the future, maybe not. Puget Sound Business Journal prints most of their current stories online and TechFlash almost totally online (except for a once-a-week page), has very few ads, and is a stand-alone website. They have 3 writers listed. How are they paying them and can they continue to do so? I would think they’re living on borrowed time there, while they search for a successful way to monetize their site.

Just today, the New York Times had a story, “You Talkin’ to Me? New York’s Brash, Boisterous Blogosphere”

For the past few years, blog comments sections, acting as virtual town squares, have offered residents around the country a forum in which to weigh in — and vent — on a wide spectrum of local issues. But given New York’s size and diversity, not to mention its fabled brashness, political energy and high emotion, its blogosphere is taking a particularly striking shape

The world’s best newspaper is discussing the movement of discourse from the “Letters to the Editor” section to the “comments” section of neighborhood blogs.

How sad. We’re gaining so much, but losing so much more in the process. When a newspaper’s editorial staff disappears, it is a serious loss to society and a blow to democracy. I don’t have an answer, but I do know that we can’t afford to lose serious professional journalists. Though it may be impossible to be totally neutral and impartial on certain topics and stories, at least that was the professional journalists directive, and they often succeeded. If the only watchdogs of our government and corporations are bloggers, heaven help us.

(Note: I have two blogs on the Seattle PI website, Seattle Real Estate Professionals and the Capitol Hill blog. My grandmother worked for years for the Seattle Times, yet we all knew that the PI was a better paper, and we had a “secret” subscription for all those years. Now I can subscribe openly but if this paper closes, our city will be so much the worse for it.)

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18 comments

  1. Jim Reppond

    Very thoughtful comments, Marlow.

    While I wish wistfully that there was a place in the future for daily news printed and physically distributed on paper, there just isn’t. Is it a loss to society and democracy? Yes, of course it is.

    The question for us as a city, a society, and country is, What do we replace it with and how do we make it work? The internet has changed the ballgame for sure. But throughout history we have seen technological advances that have changed how we communicate and this is just the latest evolution in that process.

    I’m confident that after newspapers are all gone and a just a memory, we will have news and information distribution methods that have grown to be better, more efficient, and more accurately sourced than they were before.

  2. Daniel O.

    It’s disgusting how the media suck up to these carpet baggers, and it’s irresponsible journalism to continually promote their pet companies at the expense of others. Why is some mid-level executive at Zillow suddenly an “expert” on local property values? How did the President of Windermere or John L. Scott lose this position? The Zillow-heads are sexy and have been knighted by easily-impressed journalists who love to kiss ass of venture capital-rich dilletantes.

  3. Marlow Harris

    Did you see the article by Bill Richards in Crosscut, “Hearst may be remaking, not eliminating, The P-I” Transforming the PI Excellent history and interesting musings on the future of the PI, perhaps online. Crosscut itself is an online publication, funded by VC, trying to make money with their online ads.

  4. Gene

    There are many journalists who are dazzled by the money and glamour and easily taken in by the high-tech dog-and-pony show.

    Though I respect the Fourth Estate, they often manufacture news and fantasies to dazzle the populace and sell newspapers.

    By continually promoting and giving free publicity to every new online service that comes their way, they have dug their own grave.

    Online services rarely advertise in the newspaper.

    Through ommission and selective reporting, they have promoted these online firms to the detriment of traditional companies, ones that would actually buy ads.

    RIP

  5. Debra Sinick

    Hi Marlow,

    I, too, will be sad to see the PI go, if it does. It’s a great newspaper.

    With regard to real estate advertising in the newspaper, it never really worked, even before the advent of the internet. Realtors put ads in the paper to appease sellers, but it would never get the phone to ring with a buyer for that home.

    The internet is a far more effective marketing tool for real estate. We have the opportunity to present so much more information about a home and the neighborhood through photos, virtual tours, and video. It’s far more valuable and meaningful than a 3 line ad in the Sunday paper.

    I can understand newspapers reporting on new sites like Zillow and Redfin. These companies were news when they were the new kid on the block. But I do agree, it’s unfortunate the traditional companies were often overlooked.

    Blogs serve a valuable service. “Everyman” can speak, write, and comment on a world, national, and local level.

    But seasoned journalists guard our democracy and keep us informed about many things we would not normally read about. Our Google readers can’t possibly contain everything there is that’s newsworthy. We bloggers and readers of blogs tend to pick and choose what we want to learn about. The newspaper presents many issues I know I would not read about on the web. It would be a shame to lose that focus.

  6. Kevin Lisota

    I am not sure that real estate editorial content has any impact on whether newspapers across the country are able to survive. There has been a fundamental shift in the print advertising industry, which is rapidly destroying newspaper ad revenues. While it may feel good to be written about in the newspaper, advertisers are not lured by editorial content. They are lured by affordable advertising that delivers direct and measurable business revenue.

    In the real estate industry, newspaper advertising is no longer delivering the buyers it used to. Whether you are a traditional broker or online broker, marketing dollars are being spent where the results are coming from. No one would search for listings in a newspaper when online databases are more informative and timely. No one would place real estate classifieds in the newspaper when a free alternative like Craigslist delivers better results. Open house information will also disappear from newspapers. The only reason that open houses are still so prominent is that local brokerages have been protective and not allowed other brokers to publicize their open houses online. Consumers are hungry for a comprehensive online database of open houses, and are increasingly getting this data from the Redfin site, as they are one of the few brokers who publicize open houses for all brokers, provided that they have been entered in the MLS. I hope that other brokers begin to follow this trend.

  7. John Cook

    Wow Marlow. That’s an interesting analysis. But I think you have a fundamental misunderstanding of my role as a journalist.

    First, I was not a real estate reporter at the P-I. I covered technology startups, entrepreneurs and venture capital, hence the reason I spent time on venture-backed startups such as Redfin, Zillow, Trulia and hundreds of others. That was my assigned beat. The stories I wrote were viewed through that lens, so to make some statement that I was purposely ignoring the big real estate companies is absurd.

    Furthermore, I have covered companies in good times and bad. (Maybe you missed my coverage on the layoffs at Redfin and Zillow, or the questions I raised about why Zillow needed to raise so much money or the controversy over the accuracy of their Zestimates. More recently, you’ve probably missed my coverage on Entellium and Count Me In.)

    I have never written a story with the hope of gaining an advertiser. And I don’t pimp for anyone. Those are direct attacks on my credibility as a journalist and — frankly — having never even talked to you before — they are completely unfair.

    Reserve your attacks for someone you actually know or have researched, rather than some impression that has been built up over the years.

    I am sad the P-I is shutting down. I had a lot of friends there who practiced good journalism. Maybe you should do what reporters do and ask around a bit in order to see what sort of reputation I have as a journalist. Call people and ask questions. That’s what reporters do.

    I am not sure if TechFlash will be successful or not. It is an experiment for sure. And like every startup enterprise, we’ve got plenty of hurdles ahead. But one thing I can say for sure, I certainly hope that poorly researched blogs like yours don’t represent the future of journalism.

    Take care,

    John Cook

  8. Chelle

    That is really sad news. I actually only learned of them recently when I saw it bringing a small trickle of traffic to one of my blogs when I was checking my stats. It was a huge surprise and compliment to see them link to me!

    I hope they can keep it going, I know its hard for newspapers to compete with the internet and television. Hopefully if nothing else they can keep it going online and make revenue with ad income.

    And surely if they’re linking to one of my sites they must have good taste :)

  9. Marlow Harris

    John, your coverage of those firms was disproportionate to their importance and the amount of VC they received. A quick check of your blog shows you mentioned Zillow 286 times and Redfin 162 times. During that same period, other firms that got just as much money were only mentioned a fraction of the time. For example, Big Fish Games got just as much VC as Zillow, but rated only 35 posts v.s. Zillow’s 286. Motricity got $185M and rated 19 posts and Telecom Transport Management got $120M and only rated 14 posts. (One of my personal favorite VC-funded firms, Sur la Table, which received $10M in VC, got mentioned exactly 4 times. And another, Bag, Borrow and Steal which got $15M, got 19 posts. People buy or sell a home an average of every 7 years, but most of us use our kitchen every day and a lot of us carry a purse.)

    Maybe those firms lacked charismatic leadership. Perhaps they didn’t issue a press release blowing their own horn every week. Maybe some of the firms weren’t important because their main clients were female. I don’t know, you tell me.

    I’m not a journalist, I don’t pretend to be objective and no one pays me either way.

    Even if there was no bias I would think you’d want to maintain the appearance of no bias.

    I mean no disrespect, I still read your column most every day. It’s just that I’m disappointed that some people in the media (not just you, of course) are so dazzled and impressed by a press release and a sexy gimmick.

    I know it doesn’t sound like it, but I’m a fan. Really! I am devastated that we may be losing these incredible journalists and I think we will be all the poorer for it.

  10. Pingback: Seattle’s PI Newspaper Will Close if Not Sold in 60 Days; Craig Newmark Denies Responsibility
  11. Frank

    It’s pretty disappointing to see PI and many other newspapers struggling. It’s simply a transition of our times and its really quite a scary one.

    I hope to see the newspapers find a creative way to stay afloat but I just don’t see that happening.

  12. Real Estate Forum

    The newer generation doesn’t like to read newspaper. they need something interactive. besides, newspaper costs money to buy and post ads, internet = free

  13. myrtle beach condos

    we are definatly in the internet age. I think we will see more and more newspapers going on out business. I haven’t bought a newspaper in years

  14. Marlow Harris

    This response just came in from John Cook today, which I post here:

    Marlow,

    You seem to now be tossing a new argument out in your latest comment, I hope moving away from some of allegations in the original post.

    Your new argument appears to be that I wrote more about Redfin and Zillow than I did other companies. I am not going to argue with that. (Though just to be clear: There are examples where on a VC dollar-to-news-coverage ratio, other companies actually got as much or more play on the blog. Check out Newsvine for example. Or you can compare mentions of Count Me In or Entellium versus Redfin and Zillow on TechFlash.)

    Also, your logic on Big Fish, Motricity and some of the other companies is flawed. Big Fish, for example, only announced their venture funding in September of 2008. Will I be watching them closely now that they have raised $83 million? You bet.

    Motricity, on the other hand, only moved its HQ to the Seattle area last summer.

    Some other privately-held companies just keep a low profile or operate in market segments that are not really of interest to the general tech reader or consumer. And while I do my best to cover those companies and root out the information, they may not get as much play.

    But here’s where we could have a good debate about journalism. And I am happy to talk to you about this as a person who grew up with a mom who was a newspaper reporter and who has spent more than a decade covering this beat:

    What makes a news story?

    There are elements to the Redfin/Zillow/online real estate story — including venture funding, consumer reaction, executive leadership, market opportunity, competition, controversial offerings, legal actions, etc. — that led me to spend more time on that story than say covering wireless backhaul solutions from Telecom Transport Management. (Didn’t you find it kind of interesting that Redfin, Estately, HouseValues, Zillow, Findwell, etc. all got started here?)

    To me, it was just an interesting story, one I plan to continue to tell. (Both good news and bad.) Maybe I did cover them too much for your liking. I can accept that argument.

    It’s kind of like the hydro racing fanatic or the Seattle Sounders fan complaining to Art Thiel that he spends too much time covering the Mariners or Seahawks.

    Fine.

    But to make some outrageous claim that I was somehow pimping for the companies or to insinuate that I was trying to somehow profit from the coverage really goes too far.

    We could go on and on about what makes a news story. After all, reporting on a beat is a juggling act, trying to determine what is the most newsworthy story of the day.

    If you do want to discuss any of this, please reach out to me at the email below.

    Thanks,

    John Cook
    Co-founder TechFlash.com
    johncook@bizjournals.com