All Eyes on Seattle as News Industry Searches for Answers

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Includes: BLC, GCI, GHC, LEE, MEG, MNI, NWS, NYT, SSP
by: Ken Doctor

If indeed the Seattle P-I goes online only -- which we'll now know next week -- we'll have a lot to watch. We're developing a sense of what pure start-up local news sites can generate in traffic and revenue, as they experiment with business models.

Now, we'd be able to see the same with a major metro, flipping the switch. Before I get to my watchlist, it's worth taking a look at the Seattle "daily" online war head-to-head.

For the smaller paper, the P-I has more than held its own against the Seattle Times. In fact, it is clearly ahead of the Times' website on most counts. Some highlights, via Nielsen:

  • In February, the P-I led the Times in unique visitors, overall page views and time per person (per month). The Times led on number of sessions for the month, but it was the first time it had done so since April, 2008.
  • While any one month's numbers only offer a snapshot -- we see some big peaks and valleys over the year, due to big stories, etc. -- the year as a whole tells an interesting story.
  • If the time readers are spending on the site is a key -- and that's what marketers increasingly believe as they make their buys -- then you'd have to give the edge to the PI. Several of the last 12 months are neck and neck, with each site averaging 7-8 minutes or so. When there's been a pop, though, it's been in the PI's favor, as it jumped to 12 minutes in January and was in double digits all last summer. The Times seems to have peaked at 13 minutes in July and and then dropped under double digits since. In February: the PI: 8 minutes, 44 seconds; the Times: 7 minutes, 34 seconds.
  • In uniques, the PI outdistanced the Times in February, 1.8 million uniques to 1.5 million. Again here, fairly even, but a narrow edge over the last year to the PI, for the year, about a million uniques ahead (almost 23 million to almost 22 million).
  • In page views, the PI is way ahead, beating the Times by multiples of 2-1 or 3-1 or better, consistently. The disparity is so great that the numbers look odd, and I wonder whether the parent domain nwsource.com, run by the Times, may have an affect on them. In February, the PI shows a whopping 50 million page views compared to 11 million for the Times.
  • In sessions, readers visit each of these sites two to three times a month. The PI has led the number of sessions per month from May, 2008 on, with the Times beating it in February (2.9 sessions to 2.2 sessions).

Of course, when you look at time spent and sessions, you see the newspaper problem -- not just in Seattle, but across the western world -- laid out. People just don't spend that much time with newspaper online sites, compared to what they've long spent with newspapers. Less time, fewer advertising dollars. But I digress.

Overall, these numbers tell us that an online PI has a fighting chance for supremacy in the online war to (possibly) come. It's not the second paper; it's the first local online news site.

If I were drawing up its pros and cons of success, going in, these would be on my watchlist:

PROS

  • Buzz. You couldn't buy better publicity than the Shutdown Drama has provided. Lots of people who have never checked out the online PI will -- at least once.
  • It's the Only Place You Can Get the "PI" Now. Yes, it's the same PI print readers -- or for that matter online readers -- have gotten. But it's got the brand, and it's the only PI left for those that depended on it and have a visceral disregard for the Times.
  • It Has a Built-in Audience. All those people used to going to PI will continue to, at least for awhile.
  • In Its New Online-ONLY Identity, it no longer has to worry about dealing with print/online concerns, politics and just, well, process.
  • If It Can Run, Not Walk, Towards Its Seattle Online Center -- link-heavy, blog-heavy -- future, it can build on its online identity and swamp the Times. In fact, it will be linking to the Times as a key source of, you know, news.

CONS

  • Today, it has 170 newsroom staffers competing against 260 or so at the Times. By Friday, it could be 22 vs. 260, or 1 to 10. It will focus the PI minds, but greatly depletes content production -- which has been a major contributor to its online lead.
  • Consequently, it will have far less hosted content, which drives traffic. The link game's been played well by others -- Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) certainly comes first to mind -- but it's another kind of war.
  • On revenue, it won't have the benefit of bundled classified revenue, which, while dropping dramatically, has helped support online sites. The Times will still have this revenue.
  • Connection to local advertisers: Unless it strikes a rep deal with the Times, which has run the JOA, it has start from scratch building new ad relationships, though the PI name and traffic presence is a door-opener.

For those of us who get to watch, it would be fascinating. Will the online PI grow or shrink? How stable a flipped model does it offer? How does a link/blog model do against a traditional hosted content model?

All eyes would be on Seattle, as the news industry searches for answers.

Disclosure: no positions