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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

Is there room for two in Seattle?

Consensus: The Seattle Post-Intelligencer is unlikely to find a buyer within 60 days — make that 57 days — the deadline set on Friday by its publisher, the Hearst Corporation. That means the most populous city in the Northwest will be left with just one daily newspaper, The Seattle Times, which is itself in poor financial health.

Debate: Should Hearst shutter the P-I completely or make a go at an online-only incarnation of the paper with significantly reduced staff? Peter Kafka of All Things Digital dismisses the latter out of hand, pointing to the P-I’s 2 to 3 million unique visitors per month and concluding:

That would keep a blog with a handful of writers and editors afloat—if it had a specific niche, like, say technology news. And if it had a national audience to sell to advertisers. But a generalized news site for a local audience? No one’s figured out how to do it yet, and a recession probably isn’t the time to solve that riddle.

The more optimistic voices in this debate think that an online-only operation with slimmed-down expenses could be viable in savvy Seattle, where population and startups are still on the rise. Martin Langeveld of News After Newspapers thinks that a “digital press baron” should buy the P-I and launch a “full-scale, head-to-head, old-fashioned newspaper war between a printed newspaper and an online news venture.”

Though the financials behind such a move would be shaky, there’s reason to believe that Seattle has room for two major news organizations, even if one of them is completely digital.

Check out the above chart we’ve compiled of monthly unique visitors to the Times and Post-Intelligencer websites over 2007 and 2008, according to Nielsen Online. In September through November 2008, both newspapers separately averaged about 2 million uniques with the P-I finishing slightly ahead of its rival down Denny Way (2,054,000 to 1,938,000). That’s somewhat surprising since the Times has a 69% larger print circulation on weekdays (198,741 to 117,572).

But this is more interesting: traffic at the two newspaper sites is rarely in sync. When the Times had a stellar January 2007, it was just an average month for the P-I, and while September 2008 was great for the Times, the P-I didn’t peak until October. That suggests a lot of healthy competition in Seattle’s online news market with the potential for a killer site — by the Seattle Times Company, Hearst Corporation, or one of Langeveld’s digital press barons — to dominate. An early entrant into the field is Crosscut, a not-yet-profitable Northwest news site based in Seattle, which just so happens to be bullish on the P-I’s online future.

(Photo of the iconic globe atop the Post-Intelligencer building by M.V. Jantzen on Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)

                                   
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  • David Boardman, Executive Editor, The Seattle Times and Seattletimes.com

    Regardless of the validity of the other arguments for the potential success of an online-only presence for the Seattle P-I, the one based on the wild swings in the number of unique visitors to p-i.com and seattletimes.com shouldn’t be used. The data isn’t reliable, especially for the local audience most advertisers seek.

    Nielsen’s methodology simply does not work when the numbers are reported for smaller sites month by month. When measuring local sites such as p-i.com and seattletimes.com, the number of Internet users that Nielsen samples is far too small to give a meaningful number for such a short time frame. Compounding that, most companies do not allow the installation of Nielsen’s software on work computers, so very little data is collected during the work day, the time of day that produces by far the greatest number of visits to news Web sites.

    Because we administer the servers for both sites, we measure the actual traffic to both and know what the numbers are. While there are some month-to-month changes, they show nothing like the variation that Nielsen reports. A more thorough measurement of the audience based on data from Scarborough, Nielsen and our own Omniture numbers tells a different story. For December 2008 in our Designated Market Area — the local audience most watched by advertisers — p-i.com had an audience of 347,000 and seattletimes.com had 592,400. Those audiences have been consistent and have steadily grown since the launch of both sites.

  • http://www.niemanlab.org Zach Seward

    Thanks for the comment, David. I should treat the Nielsen numbers more skeptically. They (and Quantcast and Compete) are often our only windows into the web traffic of news sites, cloudy as those windows may be. In any event, your point about local audience mattering most is well taken, and those numbers are helpful.

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