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.