A Seattle HuffPo?

Eli Sanders at The Stranger (and Slog) is posting on what he senses may be the P-I’s online plan: a Seattle HuffPo. It’s already started, he believes, with direct linkage to the West Seattle blog.

As someone who has been pitching this concept virtually since Arianna Huffington started her site — to David Brewster for Crosscut (Brewster had not even heard of HuffPo when I first mentioned it to him), to Horsesass’ David Goldstein and friends, and to executives at my career-long employer, The Seattle Times —  I hope Sanders’ conclusion is correct. I continue to believe this is the way to go, despite the fact no one ever responded to the notion with, “Hey, that’s a great idea!” (The HuffPo model, as I’ve acknowledged, does present issues of derivativeness and compensation. It’s also not cheap to do.)

Eli is right, this represents a complete flip of the typical gatekeeping model of news providers, which I explored in one of my first blogs in 2001. So the question naturally is whether a legacy news organization can pull it off.

The key line in Eli’s post: Can the P-I “become a sticky portal through which people enter the online universe of Northwest news and opinion (in the way that Huffington Post is a sticky portal into the online world of liberal news and opinion)”?

Perhaps unintentionally, the statement poses the key hurdle for a local iteration of HuffPo. Huffington Post represents the vision of a single person — the incomparable Arianna — who does have a liberal bent, but who also has imparted a sense of cutting edge tech, social and cultural savvy to her site. She has tapped into a Web consciousness regarding what “news” is. It isn’t just linking to an outside world of bloggers and celebrities. It’s linking in a way that appeals to a Web mindset and certain cultural demographic.

This consciousness, which I call Web affinity, has never been geographically based — at least, not so far. By that I mean, people do not aggregate on the Web according to where they live. Instead, they gather according to their interests — hobbies, sports, politics, social spheres. You see this everywhere in social networks, from LinkedIn to Facebook to Ning. Even sports fans have allegiances and interests extending far beyond the home team.

I doubt there actually is an “online universe of Northwest news and opinion” that could be as compelling as Huffington Post. There are pockets of Bellevue, Tacoma and Snohomish County (to say nothing of outlying sub-regions) that are nearly the obverse of Seattle’s liberal majority. I don’t think you can aim at “Northwest.” You might be able to get by with “Seattle.”

But even then, the geography is not the connection. To make a local HuffPo work requires that powerful sense of “a new who we are” that HuffPo leveraged so well in the past election and continues to ply for the Obama era. This runs precisely counter to the long-standing legacy news approach of Olympian objectivity — where the news purveyor inscrutably represents various sides of an issue without getting into the fray. Students of news history know well that newspapers did not start out this way but rather began life as bully pulpits for ideologically passionate publishers. Gradually the fear of offending advertisers led newspapers to become averse to crusades and meaningful editorializing, though, and today taking a controversial stand is anathema.

But Web followers demand to know where one stands, and they vote with their clicks. Broadcast has already undergone the transformation, with Keith Olbermann and Jon Stewart refining a “news as personality” approach to journalism. HuffPo is far from the only site to tap into Web affinity on a news basis, but it’s the model most worth emulating today.

In terms of what the P-I may be trying to do, mere aggregation is not enough. Crosscut excels at pulling together a daily overlay of “news” throughout the region. But Crosscut, alas, has little of HuffPo’s vision or magic. There’s no Oz behind the curtain, just a bunch of bots.

The problem for the P-I, or for any local HuffPo,  is finding an Oz — an individual, or core group of individuals, with enough experience, background and connections to convey a sense of what Seattle is all about via links, blogs, original reporting and whatever else might cross the transom. Just slapping stuff up won’t do it. There has to be a core vision that prioritizes and filters the cluttered static of Web discourse.

The closest this area comes to the right model is Slog. But Slog is staff-only, and while The Stranger staff is a great bunch, they can’t begin to generate the breadth and diversity needed to emulate HuffPo. Slog also has technical limitations — it’s been compared (I believe by staffer Charles Mudede) to the reading version of watching a waterfall — and is basically all over the place in content. It does have (quite astonishingly, given its resources) the best City Hall and neighborhood coverage in Seattle, and a lock on sexual dynamic, of course.

Other blogs, notably Horsesass.org and its new, still-undefined cousin, Publicola, would provide fodder for a local HuffPo. Seattle also has a rich panoply of neighborhood blogs, although most lack the resources and flair to qualify for a HuffPo.

There may indeed be a real content shortage when it comes to pulling local stuff together and feeding the monster. Career reporters tend for one reason or other not to be bloggers, and releasing them into the Web wilds (as the P-I is about to do) without a paycheck hasn’t yet proven to be much incentive (most have gone into government or PR jobs). Former P-Iers John Cook and Todd Bishop have proven an exception with Techflash, which I’ve written for (along with most of the other alternative Web pubs I’ve mentioned, in a pitiably forlorn search for digital kindred spirits). And Techflash, as I’ve written, could provide a seedbed for the tech slice of a local HuffPo, although its ownership by Puget Sound Business Journal could prove problematic. Indeed, there are thorny proprietary issues here for any P-I-sponsored umbrella, including clarifying its online relationship with The Times (as Northwest Source). One wonders if the P-I effort won’t prove merely a stalking horse for an eventual Times Web rehab, but given the paucity of a post-P-I news landscape, you have to question whether an online P-I wouldn’t wind up linking a lot to The Times.

If a HuffPo zeitgeist already resided within the halls of the P-I, one assumes it would have asserted itself by now. On the other hand, it might have met the same fate (at least, till now) of my entreaties to The Times, which clunked to the floor like a tray of lead type (The Times, incredibly enough, never even let me link from my tech column to my blog). But one thing the P-I has that is lacking in other Web forays is deep pockets. If Hearst is serious about experimenting with the new world of online journalism, it has the perfect incubator in a newly printless but link-rich P-I.

Comments

  1. 1

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    Affinity news is a toxic concept. It results in people reading and hearing only that which conforms to their ideological beliefs. Faux News is the leading model of what you get: An audience of brainwashed ignoramuses who will fiercely and implacably believe the moon is made of green cheese if Dear Leader tells them so. Real journalism collects unpleasant facts and shoves them down your throat. Then it’s your responsibility to deal with unpleasant truths. I say “unpleasant” because journalism isn’t supposed to be in the business of pasting up Smiley Faces or saying “Have A Good Day (TM)!” Journalism’s job is to announce that the fucking levee has broken and your house will be under 10 feet of water in 10 minutes so you’d better get the fuck out of there while you still can! Whether you do or not, is your business, and if you don’t, plucking you off the rooftop is government’s business, and telling you that nothing bad has happened is the real estate industry’s business, and telling you it’s Bill Clinton’s fault is the Wingnut Noise Machine’s business. It’s important to keep these roles separate otherwise you’ll end up with bakers performing brain surgery (not very well).

  2. 2

    YellowPup spews:

    This is very interesting, excellent post. Although Web affinity may be king, given the modest success of the various local sites like HA and West Seattle Blog, I get a sense that a local HuffPost (with “Oz”) would do very well. Slog is too hip for me (and agreed that it might be accessible if it had a main page), CrossCut has all the excitement of reading a police blotter, and HA is, well, itself.

    Seattle seems to be rich, young or old, mostly childless, and pretty introverted. There is a hunger to create and/or leverage local community, and people turn to the Web either because they spend most of their time there already or because it’s the only place where they feel they have a voice without having to endure the awkwardness of saying hello and the imposition of introducing themselves to a neighbor.

    It seems like it’s all a matter of finding the right balance between affinity, politics, and locality, and agreed that that would require real visionary insight.

    Given the online P-Is current state (generic celebrity pics and pretty generic local news), they will have to bring in outsiders to make it work.

  3. 3

    YellowPup spews:

    @2: and by “outsiders” I mean steeped Seattlites who are outside the local newspaper establishment.

  4. 4

    Marvin Stamn spews:

    A seattle huffpo?
     
    Isn’t that what HA is… without the profits.
     
    Maybe if HA posted original content instead of linking to left wing newspapers and blogs investors could be persuaded to put their money into HA. It’s a business thing, profits. Or as liberals call profits, greed.

  5. 5

    Marvin Stamn spews:

    If seattle was able to get a huffpo, would they be honest in their reporting or more like the huffington post where they routinely allow left-wingnuts to post doctored video like they recently did.
     
    Would they post the words of michelle obama-
    “You’re getting $600 – what can you do with that? Not to be ungrateful or anything, but maybe it pays down a bill, but it doesn’t pay down every bill every month,” she said. “The short-term quick fix kinda stuff sounds good, and it may even feel good that first month when you get that check, and then you go out and you buy a pair of earrings.”
     
    Would they use the words of michelle to prove just how useless the obama plan of $65 a month really is.
     
    the president says he’s pleased to announce that this morning, the Treasury Department began directing employers to reduce the amount of taxes withheld from paychecks – meaning that by April 1, a typical family will begin taking home at least $65 more every month. Never before in our history has a tax cut taken effect faster or gone to so many hardworking Americans.
     
    Maybe michelle feels that extra $76 between the bush giveaway and the obama giveaway is the difference.
     
    Did anyone find it strange that michelle made that quote about spending the $600 on earrings? That is exactly the thinking that got america into the situation were in. Not when filthy rich people like the obamas spend the money they earned on luxuries, but when those that can’t afford such luxuries feel it’s their right to have them. I’m pretty confident that at MamaBoy’s (aka lee, thehim) house, they have more books than dvds. That can’t be said at lower income homes.

  6. 6

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @4 You’ve got to have money before you can have a newsroom, not the other way around, dummy.

  7. 7

    Roger Rabbit spews:

    @2 Only some of Seattle is rich. This community won’t work for the rest if those who are, raise taxes and spend money as though everyone is.

  8. 8

    Marvin Stamn spews:

    If seattle had a huffpo, would they support the fairness doctrine and allow opposing viewpoints to create threads.
     
    Or would they take the position that there is no fairness doctrine and in the next paragraph see the advantages of eliminating the only medium that conservatives dominate.
      
    TALK of a liberal conspiracy to “hush Rush” by resurrecting broadcasting’s “Fairness Doctrine” is silly, little more than a straw man bashed about regularly by politically conservative pitchmen eager to sustain their lucrative audiences in the waning days of AM radio.

    Still, there’s nothing wrong with restoring the notion that a wide range of ideas ought to have a place on the nation’s radio airwaves, which are, after all, publicly owned – not the private property of a handful of corporate broadcasters.
     
    A seattle huffpo that followed the fairness doctrine applied to the internet would be a welcome change to what seattle already has.

  9. 9

    Marvin Stamn spews:

    6. Roger Rabbit spews:
    @4 You’ve got to have money before you can have a newsroom, not the other way around, dummy.

     
    Why is goldy having problems attracting investors.
     
    Is left wing hate so popular there is no need to pay for what so many lefties are willing to do for free?
     
    Why don’t you give goldy advice, use your business as a model. Oops, you were a lifelong government employee.

  10. 10

    YellowPup spews:

    @7: Yeah, I’m painting with a wide brush. Given that costs are so high here, it’s typical to find Seattlites young, single, and working their butts off, or old and retired with too much money and too few expenses to care.

  11. 11

    Marvin Stamn spews:

    10. YellowPup spews:
    @7: Yeah, I’m painting with a wide brush. Given that costs are so high here

     
    And high in san fran, high in los angeles, high in manhattan, etc.
     
    What do they have in common? Years of democrat rule.

  12. 12

    spews:

    The notion of a fairness doctrine is appealing, but only after a site has established a following. If you start by throwing out he says she says stuff you’re basically back to a Crosscut model, which hasn’t worked. And the ripostes would have to be thoughtful, above the flame wars. Thom Hartmann experiments with this on his AirAmerica show. I always go in wondering what the conservative guest will say, but usually am disappointed by the end of the “dialogue.” Both cite facts and evidence to back their views, and each can counter the other’s assertions, but it ends up coming down to who you want to believe, and we’re back to affinity again.

  13. 13

    Uncle Joe spews:

    If the concept is going to work they’re going to have to make the point a lot quicker than this super long post did.

  14. 14

    sarge spews:

    It’s a great model. Get prominent people, some of which can actually write, to post articles for no other compensation but the stroking of their ego, and then charge advertisers for the traffic generated by the free content.

    Great model, so long as nobody actually expects to make a living as a writer.

  15. 15

    rhp6033 spews:

    One of the big problems facing the P.I.’s divorce from the Joint Operating Agreement is the status of it’s digital archives. For quite a while the P.I. had no significant internet presence, the Times insisting that only it had the right to post an internet version of the paper under the JOA. This didn’t help the viability of the P.I., as the Times established itself as the digital source for Seattle area news. Of course, this was but one example of the variety of ways whereby the Times would use it’s control over the advertising, marketing, and Distribution of both papers to pump up it’s own readership and ad revenues at the expense of the P.I.

    This was finally resolved, apparantly by an agreement whereby the online version of the Seattle P.I. was hosted within the same network as the Seattle Times (NWSource). But what’s going to happen to the digitial archives of the Seattle P.I. if it ceases publication next month? Those archives do have some value. Google searches will index to those stories whenever a topic is searched. Also, lots of special-interest web sites will link to stories within the Seattle P.I., and those links might continue for quite some time. Will the Seattle Times prosper by continuing selling advertising to accompany the display of those articles, while the Seattle P.I. has to start all over again from scratch?

  16. 17

    SeattleJew spews:

    Paul, @14 sarge

    GREAT PIECE

    SJ suspects an HP-PI would work, except ….for a business model. From what I hear the Huffington Post runs on a budget that would not support the editorial and reporting staffs of the current PI. HP succeeds because it gets vast amount of free content under fair use. BUT, that content needs to be there. The dilemma, as I see it, is that we are living at the bottom of the news well. Who is going report on Ken Griffey, Microsoft? How does one generate the revenue to pay editorial writers and columnists?

    It seems to me that Paul has hit the essence of why people read HP and Drudge. These two sites are unique in offering a broad portal to the news.

    I read the Huf and Drudge each morning as my newspaper. I also subscribe to the NY times. Obviously the Times is a real newspaper with great reporting .. something the HP and DR lack. However, by the time I get to read the NYT, I have already seen most of what I want for the day ..including important stories in the NYT itself. Put it differently, the NYT can not compete as a news source with and aggregator who the WA Post, the London Times, Granma, Spiegel, AP, Al Jazeera, etc etc.

    We could obviously use Yahoo or any other agglomeration site for the same job. What HP and Drudge add is exactly what Paul says .. a dash of personality and bias. Crosscut does not succeed in doing this on a local level for two reasons … first, it is too effin local. Crosscut reads more like an enlarged version of the Laurelhurst Clarion than anything else. HA is better because of the leadership of David, but it lacks a news agglomeration feature. Second, I am sad to say, Bavid Brewster has chosen a crew of writers who lack the flash on .. well the flash of HA. Put Goldy and Earling, Josh and John and Paul at the head of Crosscutt and it might actually work!

    Imagine further that this new PI, offered the local movers and shakers a bully pulpit to write, .. again modeled on the HP. How can Crosscut compete with a site where Greg Nickles, Ron Sims, Dino Rossi, etc know they can vent their ideas to an audience?

    An entity l;ike this might be able to support a few writers. The danger would be that the New PI would lack a reporting staff. What does it cost to provide the needed local reportage?

    cross posted to SJ

  17. 18

    spews:

    @15 Ah yes, the archives…who owns ‘em and what happens to them? This is the question raised by the legacy “Northwest Source” URL that essentially buckets both newspaper archives into one destination/database. I’ve never been able to get a straight answer on why this is, and what it means in terms of the two papers’ future.

    This is especially crucial because archives represent a real revenue stream if, make that when, paid content comes to the Web. For academics, researchers, historians, authors, journalists, activists and others, news archives are a crucial resource worth paying for (a reasonable amount, which the NYT’s $1.50 a pop was not before they dropped it).

    I think The Times plan was always to buy out the P-I and absorb its archives, and the P-I went along because it figured Hearst would buy out The Times with the same deal. Then the news biz went south…but if the P-I folds and The Times declares bankruptcy to rid its debt and somehow survives — or vice versa! — the archives will exist in one big pot. If they both just plain cease to be — has this happened yet at a major paper? — then some online entity will surely purchase the archive database for standalone or synergy with other properties.