City Journal.
City Journal Summer 2009.
City Journal Summer 2009.
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A quarterly magazine of urban affairs, published by the Manhattan Institute, edited by Brian C. Anderson.

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Digital Wretches
The decline of urban print newspapers is sparking local replacements online.

On March 16, 2009, the Hearst Corporation announced that it would stop print publication of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer; the following day’s edition marked the end of a 146-year run. The previous month, Denver’s Rocky Mountain News had printed its final copy. Shortly after the P-I stopped printing copies, the Newhouse family’s Advance Publications announced that it was closing the Ann Arbor News and reducing production of the Flint Journal, the Saginaw News, and the Bay City Times (all of Michigan) to three days per week. The sudden flurry of cutbacks prompted a blizzard of editorials on whether these moves heralded the end of the news industry.

Lost in all the commotion, though, was the interesting fact that the P-I retained a small staff to produce a Web-only publication called SeattlePI.com—and that, within a month or two, the site was competing in a field arguably as crowded as the one the newspaper had left. The P-I’s old competitor, the Seattle Times, has a breaking-news website. So does CrossCut.com, a Web-only publication started in spring 2007 by David Brewster, a journalist who founded the Seattle Weekly back in the 1970s. Several former P-I staffers likewise launched SeattlePostGlobe.org to cover news, sports, and opinion. These four big players’ recent headlines have included a look at the incumbent mayor’s fund-raising advantage over other candidates, an article pointing out that the city’s streetcar-rider estimates had no basis in reality, a piece about politicians praising Amazon.com at a new headquarters’ groundbreaking even though CEO Jeff Bezos failed to show up, a report on the architecture of two new “green” buildings, and a story about the 1,400 people who applied for one meter-reading job with the city of Tacoma.

In other words, wired Seattle residents still have myriad options for local news—as do readers around the country. There’s the MinnPost in Minnesota, the Chi-Town Daily News in Chicago, NewWest.net in Montana, the Voice of San Diego, and many others. There are also websites in the pipeline, such as the soon-to-launch AnnArbor.com in Michigan, which will replace the old Ann Arbor News. Tony Dearing, former editor of the Flint Journal, is launching it this summer. He attends community forums at hotels and the University of Michigan’s student center to figure out what people want this Web-based publication (complemented by a twice-weekly print edition) to look like. While many lament the demise of the daily Ann Arbor News, he says, people still want a source of “credible local news. . . . They don’t want that to go away because the paper’s going away.” One of the Web’s benefits, he points out, is that articles don’t have to compete for space as they do on paper, so there’s room for coverage that might not have made it into the Ann Arbor News. “As opposed to living in a world where the paper is getting skinnier,” he says, “let’s try giving people a big fat website.”

A handful of local and regional websites had already carved out their own niches before the print players started getting into the game. One of the most successful is NewWest.net, founded in 2005 by Jonathan Weber, former editor in chief of the Industry Standard. During a stint as a visiting journalism professor at the University of Montana in Missoula, he noticed that “the national media doesn’t cover the West very well as a general matter.” He figured he could fill the gap in reporting between local city papers and the national ones on regional topics such as economic growth, conservation, and water rights. The main site now draws 100,000 unique visitors a month, with some satellite sites drawing an additional 50,000.

While no online publication is losing the spectacular sums that print publications are, few have struck it rich. NewWest.net is currently breaking even because its parent company owns a profitable conference business, not because of any explosion of online advertising. In Seattle, Brewster originally intended CrossCut to make a profit, but when it didn’t, he converted the original investment stakes to donations and turned it into a nonprofit. SeattlePostGlobe.org is launching as a nonprofit, and the MinnPost and Chi-Town Daily News have always had that status—they solicit foundation money and donations to stay afloat. Some wonder if the key to survival for local online news publications will ultimately be ownership by a billionaire “who wants a newspaper for a pet rock,” says Phil Meyer, professor emeritus at the University of North Carolina’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication and author of The Vanishing Newspaper.

But even nonprofits or billionaire playthings can’t lose money forever. One of the big ways online publications save money is keeping their payrolls far smaller than their print counterparts’. As of April, AnnArbor.com’s Dearing refused to say how many people would ultimately be on staff, but indicated that compared with the Ann Arbor News, AnnArbor.com would “employ fewer people, use more freelance reporters, and also more content contributed by the community.” The organizational chart “will really look nothing like a newsroom.” CrossCut pays $25 to $300 for stories. A freelancer writing three stories per week for its highest pay rate of $300 could gross a reasonable $45,000 a year (though not, of course, including benefits, which the freelancer would have to buy). But most contributors don’t hit that volume, and many other publications pay less. That keeps costs down, but may make it hard for local online publications to find the talent they need.

It’s still unclear, then, which online models will work. But one thing is unquestionable: the traditional newspaper industry is reeling. Advertising sales are falling, newspapers are closing, and observers are finding it difficult to keep up with newspaper layoffs (the Columbia Journalism Review tallied 11,250 layoffs or buyouts between January 2007 and February 2009, and according to Erica Smith’s Paper Cuts blog, 10,091 newspaper jobs had been lost between January 2009 and summer). So long as readers continue to want local news, though, they’ll have to get it somewhere—and it’s possible that in Seattle and elsewhere, the future has begun taking shape.

Laura Vanderkam, a New York City–based writer, is the author of Grindhopping: Build a Rewarding Career Without Paying Your Dues

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