The Post-Gazette appears ready to make a serious upgrade of its online offerings. But enjoying some of it will cost you.
According to the rumblings emanating from the Boulevard of the Allies, in the weeks ahead -- perhaps as soon as Sept. 1 -- the paper will begin offering premium online content for those willing to pay for it. When last I heard, the roster of talent hadn't been firmly established. I can say that the P-G has been talking to some local bloggers about contributing -- and yeah, it's a pretty safe bet that Virginia "PittGirl" Montanez is one of them. Expect the paper to make use of some of its established in-house talent as well.
For reasons I'll get into below, an obvious target for this content will be the "Pittsburgh diaspora" -- former Burghers who've moved away but still check in on their old hometown.
The paper also seems poised to allow comments on its news stories in the near future. This change will be made across the site, and it's about time. Papers like the Washington Post, the dailies in Philadelphia, and even City Paper have enabled that function for years.
If you want to get some insights into the paper's online strategy, get real comfortable and watch the video posted here. It's tape of a panel discussion held at the Netroots Nation conference held in Pittsburgh earlier this month. In it, veteran P-G reporter Michael Fuoco talks about the paper's online hopes and fears.
A caveat: This footage runs more than an hour long, and it doesn't always make for great TV. The Q&A section at the end is especially painful, featuring audience members making floor speeches that you can't hear. But from Fuoco we learn the following:
-- The P-G claims between 38 and 40 million page views a month, divvied up among 3 million unique readers.
-- 54 percent of those online readers are from outside the region. "Let's face it: They’re coming for the Steelers stories," Fuoco said. "That’s pretty much what drives our Web site is the Pittsburgh Steelers. We're well aware that it's not my sparkling writing."
Don't sell yourself too short, Mike. As Chris Briem has pointed out, while the P-G's rhetoric about internet journalism is sometimes dumb, its actual practices are pretty smart. They devote more resources to stuff like online video than we do, certainly. (Though in fairness, they HAVE more resources than us too.) The Tribune-Review doesn't even come close.
But even at the P-G, the progress hasn't come easily. Listening to Fuoco, you can see why.
Fuoco first speaks a half-hour into the video, preceeded by Jay Rosen, one of today's most astute observers of the journalistic scene. "We have to figure out how professional journalists ... and all the other journalists [like bloggers and providers of crowd-sourced content] can work together," Rosen suggested. "We’re all participants in the new system. But don’t freak out, it'll be fine."
"I am freaking out," Fuoco said a couple moments later. He said that for him, the question wasn't so much "does democracy depend on newspapers" -- the conundrum the panel was supposed to discuss -- "but can the Post-Gazette last another three years so I can get [my son] through college?"
Even so, Fuoco later added, "there is so much focus on our Web site, that I don't think some people realize we publish a newspaper any more." This despite the fact that neither the P-G nor anyone else has figured out how to make a profit from it yet.
Obviously, one approach would be having out-of-towners pay for online content. And the P-G isn't the first paper to hit on that idea. Across the country, newspapers are coming to the conclusion that giving away content for free online just isn't a viable business model. The internet advertising dollars simply are not there.
But it'll be interesting to see how the P-G feels its way through all this. Like a lot of us, reporters like Fuoco are still struggling to figure out how to "work together" with the online community. During the panel discussion, Fuoco suggested that he was "probably viewed as something of the enemy" -- although it was pretty clear that Rosen and other panelists didn't see him that way at all. Fuoco did draw Rosen's ire, however, by suggesting that what separated print journos from online commentators, really, was that the pros had a higher commitment to the truth.
By way of example, Fuoco cited the notorious story of McCain volunteer Ashley Todd. Fuoco contended that while sites like the Drudge Report regurgitated Todd's account of being attacked by an Obama-supporting mugger in Pittsburgh. (The "mugger," you'll recall, supposedly branded her with a backwards letter "B" on her cheek.)
"I covered police for 12 years," Fuoco recalled, "so I had a source I called." The source confirmed that a police report had been filed based on Todd's allegations, but Fuoco said, "'off the record, what's going on?' And he said, 'It's bullshit."
Rosen snapped back a few minutes later. "I love this description of the reporting process. Call up the police: 'What's going on here?' 'Well, there was such a report ...' 'Off the record, what's going on here?' 'It's bullshit.' Very good encapsulation of professional reporting."
More importantly, Rosen said, it's not just professional journalists who had misgivings about the story, orwho wanted to discover the truth. "There were actually a lot of people online who were concerned about verifying whether this was true as well ... The verification of what happened ... is not something that we can ever reserve to professional journalists. Everybody is part of the verification of the truth. Everybody has the duty, and the role, and now the means, to check if it really happened."
In fact, Rosen added, "When journalists think of themselves as the [only] ones who care about whether something is true to not, they're on the road to ruin."
Ouch. Despite its foibles, though, I think the P-G has too many smart people to end up on that road. But I guess we're going to start finding out soon enough.