Some thoughts on the Web and print

There’s been plenty written about the news that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer is up for sale, and that owner Hearst Corp. says if it doesn’t sell in 60 days the paper will become Web-only, or will be shut down completely. Some have argued that as the perennial second paper in a relatively small market, the PI has been doomed for some time now (it hasn’t turned a profit in almost a decade, apparently) and that the news about the Post-Intelligencer may actually be part of a strategic move by the Hearst family to acquire the newspaper’s main competitor in town, the Seattle Times.

I don’t have any strong opinions on any of that really, although I agree with Alan Mutter that being the second newspaper in a fairly small metropolitan market doesn’t look like a great value proposition at the moment (if it ever was). What really struck me was the story that the Post-Intelligencer wrote on its own demise — and in particular a photo that ran with the story, which I’ve included here (click through if you’re reading this through a feed reader). There’s not much remarkable about it, at first glance, but for some reason I kept coming back to it and thinking about it as I was reading.

It looks a lot like my paper’s newsroom, or any one of a hundred newsrooms across Canada and the U.S., with the staff gathered around as the editor (or in this case the president of Hearst’s newspaper division) makes a speech. We do that in our newsroom — as I’m sure many newspapers do — when we win awards, when someone is leaving, and so on. But in the picture, two members of the staff aren’t listening; their backs are to the rest of the newsroom, and they are looking intently at a computer screen. According to the caption, they are business editor Margaret Santjer and online producer Sarah Rupp, and they are updating the paper’s Web story about the news.

That picture said a lot to me. The staff of the paper — dozens of people, as far as I can tell — are standing there listening to the editor speak, while two people update the website with the news about the paper’s potential closure. Why are they working and the rest of the staff aren’t? Because the Web never sleeps, and they know that people are going to be looking for the latest updated information on the paper’s future. Most of the writers and editors in the background have probably already finished the bulk of what they have to do for the next day’s paper, or possibly haven’t started yet.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m not trying to say that Web staff work harder than newspaper writers or editors. But their jobs are still very different at many papers. Web staff are constantly posting stories, updating stories, adding links, perhaps even moderating comments, changing photos, and so on. After I started on the Web full-time in 2000, colleagues would call me and before they started a conversation they would politely ask “Are you on deadline?” I used to say that there was a deadline every minute of the day on the Web. In fact, the whole concept of a specific drop-dead moment when a story has to be filed seems impossibly antiquated to me now.

The reality is that the newspaper is a snapshot — a selection of frozen moments collected in a particular form and delivered at a specific time and place. That has plenty of value, and will continue to. News on the Web, meanwhile, is a constantly changing and inherently flexible phenomenon that allows (and even demands) continuous updating and tending to, the way you do with a garden. Like still photography and video, they are two very different approaches, both with benefits and disadvantages.

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