Hearst Team Visits Seattle as Company Considers a Web-Only P-I

By Sandeep Kaushik February 3, 2009

Word out of the Post-Intelligencer newsroom is that Hearst is not just paying lip service to the possibility of an online news operation rising from the ashes of the print P-I. Last week, a delegation of four of the media conglomerate’s top business and web people spent Monday through Thursday in Seattle immersing themselves in every detail of the P-I’s web operations, sources said. I’m told they were particularly impressed with’s rapidly rising web traffic, which ranks the paper among the top 20 online newspaper sites in the nation.

 On January 21, the trade publication Editor & Publisher reported that the P-I site had 2,533,000 unique visitors in December, the 17th most frequented newspaper site in the country. That was a sharp rise over November, when the P-I site generated 1,870,000 uniques. By way of comparison, the Seattle Times, which has a significantly larger print circulation than the P-I (198,741 vs. 117,572), nonetheless lagged behind the P-I in web traffic, with just shy of 2 million uniques in December (most newspapers saw post-election web traffic declines, but the Seattle market was an exception).

And the rise in P-I web traffic is continuing, approaching nearly 3 million unique visitors in January, one source at the paper told me, a fact that duly impressed the visitors from Hearst. Such a strong online base could make a Seattle online news operation seem far more viable to company execs, though the team from Hearst made it clear that the company has made no final decision about whether to go forward with an online only publication.

Last month, in announcing their decision to end the print edition of the P-I, Hearst made it clear that any online-only version of the paper would operate with a sharply reduced staff – speculation in the local media world is that an online P-I would be unlikely to employ many more than 20 people, with at most half of those actually doing reporting. The P-I currently employs about 180 people.

One fact or that could complicate the start of an web news site is the relatively generous severance package Hearst is offering P-I employees, which amounts to two weeks of pay or more for each year of employment at the paper. Should Hearst go forward with the effort, P-I employees assume that those the company attempts to retain would be offered lower-paying non-union jobs. And with the future viability of an online newspaper venture uncertain at best, some of the P-I’s most web-savvy staffers could opt for the severance money – which will amount to well over six months pay for many long-time employees – rather than staying on at what would amount to a new internet start-up.

Michelle Nicolosi. Who runs the P-I’s web operations, declined to comment on the Hearst team’s visit. I have an e-mail in to Paul Luthringer, Hearst’s corporate spokesperson, and will report back what he has to say.

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