Former P-I staffers hope to launch new journalism Web sites

by Eric Pryne, Seattle Times

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer's print death has spawned at least two local initiatives to launch new Web sites devoted to in-depth journalism, and to explore new ways to pay for it.

Laid-off P-I reporters and editors are involved in both efforts. One group has been talking with public broadcasters, the other with academics.

People involved in both initiatives say their plans are far from firm, and that finding a new business model to support serious journalism could take time.

Even so, one group of former P-I journalists says it could start publishing stories online this spring, hoping the money will come later.

The P-I's owner, The Hearst Corp., shut down the print version March 17, saying the city's oldest newspaper lost $14 million in 2008 and stood to lose even more this year. It retained about 20 people to staff a revamped Seattlepi.com, which emphasizes breaking news, but most of the newspaper's 160 journalists lost their jobs.

The P-I's demise came less than three weeks after Denver's Rocky Mountain News published its last edition. This week the publisher of the Ann Arbor (Mich.) News said that paper will close in July, with plans to go online only.

Many more metropolitan dailies, including The Seattle Times, have trimmed staff and content as advertising revenues plunge. Some publishers have filed for bankruptcy protection.

"The deaths of these few newspapers has put everybody's heads on the chopping block," said University of Washington communications professor David Domke.

Domke and other university faculty have met with a group of former P-I editors and reporters who hope to establish a news organization that would produce investigative, enterprise and narrative journalism focused on the West.

"These aren't the kind of stories you can do in a day or two," said Rita Hibbard, a former P-I assistant managing editor and spokeswoman for the group. "How do we keep this form alive? The need is still there."

The venture is incorporating as a nonprofit, she said, and has begun talking with potential funders and sponsors. One possible model: ProPublica, a New York-based nonprofit online investigative news outlet launched last year with foundation backing.

Soliciting reader financial support — the way National Public Radio does with listeners — is another possibility, Hibbard said.

Domke said the enterprise could play a more active role than newspapers traditionally have in engaging citizens and looking for solutions to social problems. Its journalists also could teach budding investigative reporters, he added.

The effort needs seed money, Domke said, and the UW — beset by its own budget woes — has none to offer. But Hanson Hosein, another faculty member who has met with Hibbard's group, said an association with the university still could provide the enterprise with credibility and clout, and perhaps attract money from elsewhere.

Hibbard said her group also has had detailed discussions with other universities about affiliation and support. Western Washington University was the only one she would identify.

It's too soon to say when — or if — any venture might launch, she said: the picture should become clearer in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, another group of former P-I journalists, calling itself Seattle Post Globe, is working to put together an online local-news outlet that might be owned by community members, along the lines of the National Football League's Green Bay Packers.

A similar effort is under way in Denver, where about 30 former Rocky Mountain News journalists, with some business community support, are seeking 50,000 pledges over the next month to launch a site they call In Denver Times.

Seattle Post Globe has raised only about $4,000 so far, insiders say. But former Seattle Weekly managing editor Chuck Taylor, who is advising the venture, said a Web site could go live in the next few weeks, with reporters and editors working for free at first.

Post Globe leaders have met with officials at public broadcasting stations KCTS-TV and KPLU-FM. KCTS is providing the group with office space.

Maurice "Moss" Bresnahan, the station's president, said he wishes the Post Globe well — "I'd just hate for the community to lose all those talented people" — but he's also taking a longer view.

The station, in cooperation with Post Globe, is seeking grant money to hire a consultant to research business models that might support in-depth local journalism across several platforms, he said.

Paul Stankovich, KPLU's general manager, said there has been talk of linkages and partnerships between the broadcast stations and Post Globe, and of finding subjects that lend themselves to coverage on television and radio as well as online.

"But so far these are just discussions," he said. "There are no commitments, no obligations."

article originally published at http://seattletimes.nwsource.com/html/businesstechnology/2008932042_postpi27.htm....

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey