How Is Seattle P-I Doing, One Year Later?

One year ago, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer published its last print edition and became an online-only publication. As news organizations experiment with new business models, Hearst’s experience in Seattle may offer lessons.

In a piece last year about the change, SeattlePI.com Executive Producer Michelle Nicolosi asked, “Is it possible to run an online-only local news site that serves a city’s readers well while turning a profit?”

Linda Thomas of KIRO-FM spoke with Hearst Seattle Media General Manager Pat Balles and reported that the site is not yet profitable:

“[Balles] says they’re on track to make a profit, though he won’t say when. Hearst Corporation is a privately-held company, and [Balles] says stock holders will be the first to know when they’ve turned the corner. At the least, he says, they are not bleeding $1 million a month they lost with the print operation. It’s estimated that in 2008 Hearst lost $14 million in Seattle.

” ‘I like to think of it as it’s an ATM that maybe the parent company was making deposits into. Eventually they’d like to get a withdrawal out of this ATM, this investment, and I think it’s totally viable to do that,’ Balles says.”

Balles told me by e-mail that the Web site averages around 4 million unique visitors per month, with 40 million page views. Thomas reported that those figures are comparable to when the P-I published in print and online.

Because the P-I extracted itself from a Joint Operating Agreement with The Seattle Times in which the Times handled advertising, one unknown was how quickly advertising would come to the new operation.

“We are optimistic with the progress made,” Balles told me, “and encouraged by the feedback we are getting from clients on how we are meeting/exceeding expectations with their online campaigns on the SeattlePI, Yahoo, Facebook, Zillow and Search Engine Marketing.”

Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds noted the ongoing challenge faced by the P-I and other online-only operations. “In a general way, there’s not enough online advertising to support a substantial news operation,” and even a staff of 22 is a substantial news operation, he said.

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Edmonds believes a diversified revenue base helps. Some online-only sites, like MinnPost and others that allow donations and depend on foundation support, offer advertising as a way for organizations to associate themselves with a good thing. It’s similar to NPR’s approach with its sponsors. “That’s harder to make work for a for-profit business,” Edmonds said, “since people aren’t warm and fuzzy about it to the same degree.”

In the year since the P-I shifted its approach, the Seattle news scene has changed, as the Web site noted in a story Tuesday about new media ventures. The P-I’s shift has likely helped its former JOA partner, The Seattle Times, which has renegotiated its debt and said it is turning a profit, with circulation increases driven in part by those it inherited when the P-I stopped printing.

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