Seattle is famed as the home of Jimi Hendrix, grunge music, Starbucks coffee, Amazon books and Microsoft, but it is fast becoming the frontier for online news media too. Last month the Seattle Post Intelligencer became the largest American daily to switch entirely to online and last week former PI staff lost in the move launched their own competitive daily online news source — the Seattle Post Globe — in association with the city’s free alternative publication, the Seattle Weekly.

But is the shift to produce solely online misguided?

The same day the Seattle PG launched, City University in London released a study which suggested there was little or no financial benefit in dropping newspaper print editions. The Guardian reported that the struggling Finnish publication Taloussanomat failed to improve its fortunes after moving wholly online in December 2007.

“After the move was made, the Finnish title’s costs fell by 50% — but its online readership declined by 22% and revenues dropped by more than 75%.”

While the Seattle PI has the force of media mega company Hearst behind it and the Seattle PG and Weekly are owned by much smaller company Village Voice Media, PI is not operationally continuing at the same print publication level it was.

The PI went from 165 staff to 20 in the move — clearly affecting their ability to produce original local content — and must now use wire copy for pretty much every event occurring outside of the immediate metropolitan circle. Media Bistro says drastic cuts to the newsroom will invariably see the quality of content suffer.

The PG has a comparable 24 editorial staff, although as yet theirs are volunteer positions for which they are not paid. Poynter reports, “The site expects to rely to a great extent on reader donations; the editors’ goal is to get 8,000 people to pledge $10 a month”.

The Stranger suggests the issue with multiple online news sources for Seattle will be their ability to find a specific audience, “The plan is for the PostGlobe to play the news of the city straight down the middle, with a non-partisan take that [editor] Kery Murakami hopes will differentiate itself by emphasis and attitude — an interesting approach given that the “unbiased” niche is already filled by the Seattle Times and the new online-only P-I.”

In the weeks since going solely online, Editor and Publisher has reported that the Seattle PI’s web traffic has been up and down — news that cannot be reassuring if the publication wants to stay afloat. Interestingly enough one PI blogger actually promoted the launch of the PG – sending traffic to their competitor.

US national publication The Christian Science Monitor also went solely online ten days after the Seattle PI and E&P believe their web traffic has not changed.

The Washington Post reports a third online news site, InvestigateWest, created by more former PI staff, is due to be launched in coming weeks.

Given Seattle’s reputation as an online epicentre, Americans are keen to point out that if solely online newspapers are going to work, it will be in this city. It is too early to tell if the fortunes of either the PI or the PG will keep Washington state’s journalists alive.

In the meantime three and a half million Seattlites in a city the size of Melbourne are left with one daily print metro paper, The Seattle Times.

Peter Fray

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