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Failing Newspaper With Online Potential For Sale... Any Takers?

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The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, owned by Hearst Corp., announced today that it is being put up for sale. If it hasn't sold after 60 days, it will either become a web-only publication or completely cease operation.

It's not a great sales pitch but at least it's honest. With the undeniable convenience and widespread access to news on the web, it seems there's little room left for successful print media in the United States. Though many in the Seattle community may be a little let down, I think few would say they're surprised.

Competition has been stiff for quite awhile in one of the few remaining two-newspaper towns. The P-I's Blethen family-owned competitor the Seattle Times has been on top for years, and gave the P-I an even bigger run for its money in 1999 when it switched from an afternoon to a morning paper. Still, both have seen a sharp decline in circulation numbers during the past decade. At the end of September 2008, the P-I's circulation was down 117,572 from 196,275 in 1998 while the Times' circulation declined to 198,741 from 227,711. Hearst Corp. said the P-I lost $14 million in 2008 alone, the P-I reported.

The papers have run under a joint operating agreement since 1983, allowing the Times to take a greater cut of the papers' shared profits in exchange for handling the P-I's printing, advertising and circulation businesses. Under the agreement, the P-I must be for sale for at least 30 days before discontinuing.

For me, the announcement brings mixed emotions. The thought of the P-I succeeding as a web-only publication is beyond exciting. With features such as comment boards and community blogs, the Internet makes possible the essence of journalism: creating public discourse. Online journalism gets the community involved in and connected with issues in a much more interactive way than a newspaper. It allows for immediate feedback and idea sharing unlike any other medium.

Then I think about the first time I walked into the P-I newsroom for my first news internship during my junior year as a University of Washington journalism student. It was also my first time stepping into the behind-the-scenes of a large metro daily. I couldn't help but become giddy at the sight of notebooks and stacked papers strewn across desks, phones ringing off the hook and diligent reporters clicking away at keyboards. It felt just like the scenes from All the President's Men that inspired me to keep studying journalism despite my parents' constant reminders that it'd be tough to make a decent living as a wide-eyed gumshoe.

Later that year (2007), Assistant Managing Editor Janet Grimley was afraid she wouldn't have enough desks to accommodate me and the two other summer reporting interns. You can imagine my surprise when Higher Education Reporter Amy Rolph told me two months ago that only about half the newsrooms' desks were occupied. By instating a hiring freeze in mid-2007, the paper was able to avoid layoffs. Though things were tight, it seemed like the staff could squeeze by, picking up the extra work of those who chose to leave and avoiding travel expenses.

Now it pains me to think of those mentors that I looked up to losing their jobs. Reading their quotes about how "awful" the situation is and even accounts of some crying at their desks is heartbreaking. It's not like they weren't doing a good job; in fact, many worked themselves to the bone. But in the Internet age, hard work in an outdated medium just doesn't cut it.

Again, I think of the possibility of seattlepi.com living on. The P-I has been at the forefront of daily online news for as long as I can remember. Most beat reporters have their own blogs to share scoops and create discussion; the community contributes to MySeattlePix and reader blogs; there's even a specialized site for pet lovers and the SPI for youth.

Some say this is part of a Hearst Corp. experiment to see if turning its failing papers into online news sources could work. I can't vouch for that, but if it is, the P-I is their best choice. It's already established itself as a widely-read online news source and I can only imagine it would continue to succeed if the company focused all the paper's efforts on the Web.

It's a sad day for P-I reporters and print media -- but this move could have a silver lining for online journalism that I'm looking forward to.