Photo by Rutlo/Flickr; photo manipulated in Snapseed

The Future of Local News — Why We Shouldn't Settle For Ad-Covered Wire Copy

Yesterday, I ran into a story that stopped me dead in my tracks.

It wasn't the words that threw me off — it is a serviceable wire story that about a million other news outlets were running — really, it was the advertising that irked me.

Just take a look at this thing — what can be said? This story bugs me for many deep, easy-to-spot reasons.

The "takeover" ads: The two columns of ugly checkers. The loudness. The noise. How can you concentrate on the wire story you've chosen to read when there's so much competition for your attention?

The other ads: I counted at least ten other ads on the page. One of those ads was a pop-up linking to low-quality “sponsored content” and even that was covered up by the takeover ads.

The bottom bar: At the bottom of the page, covered up by an ad, is a Meebo bar. This bar, which eventually became more popular than the company's initial chat project, was eaten up by Google and turned into a pure monetization play. Sure, it offers some social functionality, but the reason it’s on this page, honestly, is that this is just another spot to squeeze out some revenue. If it was the only ad on the page, it would be a reasonable one because it isn't overly loud — and, conceivably, Google could charge up the wazoo for the ad for scarcity reasons — but, as you can see above, it's not. It was covered up by the takeover ads, too.

These, however, are all minor annoyances — my real problem with this story is more fundamental.

The outlet: This is, the web presence of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, a newspaper that somewhat infamously became the first big city newspaper to go online-only back in 2009. Here’s a company that had a four-year head start to reinvent its model, its journalism, and its overall mission. And here’s what the business side has apparently been doing the whole time — figuring out new ways to run advertising on top of advertising on top of advertising. You want to root for them — for their mission, for their potential status as a trailblazer — but, this is what they’ve spent the past four years doing. To put it simply, it’s a bummer. It disrespects the journalists who lost their jobs and the ones that have barely skated by. It shows how bereft of ideas the business side is for making money from journalism on the Internet. It shows the fundamental flaws with the model and makes me wonder if the paper would have been better off taking a six month break and restarting the site with an entirely new mission.

There are still great journalists that work at this paper, don't get me wrong. But we need to talk about the business here.

A Site-Wide Problem

I know what you’re thinking — oh, it’s just this story. Alas, it’s not. Here are the other lead items on yesterday’s front page:

These are the day’s most read stories on the site:

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has taken its sizable legacy as a West Coast hub of great journalism and turned itself into the West Coast version of the Daily Mail — a news outlet in service to the internet. There’s still some Seattle news in there, but it’s largely secondary to the things that are going to drive traffic to the site — pulling in readers from Google News and elsewhere by taking advantage of the site’s access to wire services and name recognition to keep traffic moving.

Without the rudder of a great newspaper behind it, the site has become a shell of its former self.

To put it simply, this is a newspaper company — Hearst, as it turns out — throwing up its hands in defeat. Here’s a company, by its actions, saying: we can't make serious money off of local journalism anymore. Nowhere is this more evident than in its choice to highlight a Selena Gomez story that can be read on any news outlet from Redmond to Richmond instead of anything that’s actually from Seattle.

What has become clear is the Seattle Post-Intelligencer has ceded the territory that it once had to The Seattle Times. To The Stranger. To Seattle Weekly. To West Seattle Blog. To any number of journalists working outside of the newspaper system.

Right around the same time the P-I began its experiment in newspaper-free journalism, the Rocky Mountain News — a Pulitzer-winning, critically-acclaimed newspaper based in Denver — dramatically shut down altogether. It turned off the presses online and off (its website is still online, encased in amber and still looking quite nice for a site that hasn't been updated in four years), and though efforts were made to move on with new news models by notable voices from the paper, the independent efforts ultimately failed to grab hold.

The city of Denver lost an important newspaper, and many talented people lost their jobs, but the Rocky went to sleep with its integrity intact.

It doesn't have to be one or the other.

Other Options

Look, it's not fair to pick on a single media outlet. I respect the fact that journalists have been lucky enough to keep their jobs in Seattle — during a recession — despite all this. But, this is a potential microcosm of what could happen to newspapers around the country, and we need to talk about this before another flailing big paper tries something similar.

I see what's happened to the P-I in the past few years, and I worry that this is the model that newspapers — slowly looking to put the genie back in the bottle — are going to have to rely on.

It doesn't have to be this way. Look at, for example, The Awl. Here's a site that's been unafraid to try multiple new business models — from being an early adopter of the iPad magazine format, to the innovative approach to sponsored advertising, which rolls out intriguingly, begging for your clicks, but never talking down to you.

Perhaps the margins aren't as good as running takeover ads all over your site, but there’s a degree of honesty here that raises the integrity significantly. A local newspaper could do wonders with an ad format like this and, in the process, get rid of some of the unsightlier visuals.

On the newsier end of the spectrum, Politico has done a great job of leveraging its print product to create a sustainable long-term online business model that understands its audience and will ultimately survive many storms. The trump card is Politico Pro, which launched last year and is clearly set up to be the economic driver that will keep the regular site moving if and when the print product outlives its usefulness. The P-I lives in a city with aerospace, Amazon and Microsoft within shouting distance, and, on the sports end, is home to the Mariners, Seahawks and Sounders. There is so much opportunity for specialized niche journalism here. With the right market research, there could be many diverse offerings here.

Even the standard paywall model is something worth looking at, with the New York Times doing well with it and big-time bloggers like Andrew Sullivan transparently showing what can be done with some smarts and an approach that doesn't talk down to readers. What if The P-I took its Big Blog, created a "Bigger Blog" with more reader input, a free T-shirt, more constant updates, and a Launch-style newsletter for donors?

(As it turns out, The Seattle Times is also moving towards a paywall, a move encouraged by former P-I editor Candace Heckman Barron. “In 2009, when I climbed inside the rickety inner sphere of the P-I globe, I saw up close how the business decisions and indecisions of my former employer let this landmark beacon fall into disrepair,” she wrote. “It made me worry what Seattle would be like with no newspaper at all.”)

There's so much unexplored opportunity here. It just requires creative thinking.

Thoughts From a Former Employee

In the early 1920s, novelist and style guide co-author E.B. White started his storied career writing articles at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and The Seattle Times. By his own account, he wasn't very good at being a journalist, but in his later years, he wrote of the value of a free press unencumbered by overbearing sponsorship.

Sponsorship in the press is an invitation to corruption and abuse. The temptations are great, and there is an opportunist behind every bush. A funded article is a tempting morsel for any publication—particularly for one that is having a hard time making ends meet.

His ideal is understandable, but unreachable, especially nowadays. The truth is, with journalism, you need money to make all this work — to keep the lights on and function efficiently. But, at what point does advertising or sponsorship become more important to the mission than keeping the lights on? And how can you keep all these things in check without losing the original mission of the product?

Journalism is hard. So is making money. But, the central focus has to be the journalism. When it becomes the latter without the service of the former, bad things happen and a publication known for including the words of E.B. White loses its way.

Ernie Smith is the editor of ShortFormBlog, a social media journalist at McMurry/TMG, and a former newspaper guy who spent rounds at papers big and small.