Even More News Your Can Use at the Post-Gazette

In the second announcement affecting Pittsburgh's online media space in nearly as many days, the Post-Gazette is launching PG+ (or Post-Gazette Plus) at www.post-gazette.com/plus.

Folks will have to pay to access the site; even current (paper) subscribers will be asked to fork over the same amount as everyone else -- $36 per year.

Potter is skeptical. Why pay twice, he asks? He's going to cancel his print subscription.

Not so fast, I think. What's really going on here?

The curious thing to me isn't the idea of paying for premium content (allegedly "premium" content). It's the fact that the PG's promotion is so into the "how" of the site (new! bloggers! social networking! user interaction!) that it just about completely ignores what the site will actually say. Sure, some good PG writers will show up.

But how often?

And what will they write about?

The PG:
Initial offerings include Ed Bouchette's blog on the Steelers, High School Edition video with Mike White, Rough Cut from editorial cartoonist Rob Rogers, Bob Hoover's Book Club, The Beat with Weekend editor Scott Mervis and a noontime Face Off with columnists Reg Henry and Jack Kelly. Mackenzie Carpenter will host the weekly Omnivore, a 10-minute Webcast on culture, politics, media and lifestyle, and Doug Oster will introduce several new features, including a gardening blog. More staffers and content will enter the mix as the site grows.
There has to be more in the works, because if this is the future of Pittsburgh's journalism, then the PG is throwing its last Hail Mary, and the pass is falling incomplete. Mackenzie Carpenter in a once-a-week webcast for 10 minutes? Where's the beef? This is a marketers' wet dream and a real journalists' nightmare.

In my view, the reason that the Post-Gazette is dying is not that people aren't being allowed enough opportunities for user interaction with the editorial staff. If you're clever enough to subscribe to PG+, then you probably have enough social networking in your life already. Even if you're a member of the target demographic, the Pittsburgh/Steelers Diaspora. Are you a member of the Diaspora who wants to satisfy a networking Jones? Come over to our LinkedIn group, IntoPittsburgh. In the early 1970s, my father wore bell bottom pants, a peace symbol, and leather sandals. That didn't make him hip.

No, the reason that the Post-Gazette is dying is that it doesn't have the ad revenue to pay for quality journalism. Some of this is simply beyond the paper's control. Someday we may see a headline that reads, "Kaufmann's Closing Killed the Post-Gazette," though I certainly hope that we won't. Some, however, is in the paper's control. The Diaspora doesn't want a playground; it wants something that's worth reading (or, as the case may be, watching or listening to). Right now, the paper's news hole is terribly small, and the copy that fills it is -- with some salient exceptions -- really mediocre. PG+ sounds to me like more of the same -- plus the power to tell that to the staff directly.

The PG has two real sources of value: One is the best and most thoughtful of its full-time writers, across all departments and sections, trained as journalists and let loose to act and write like them. Two is Steelers Nation. PG+ could, in time, marry the two: SN loves deep-diving thoughtful coverage of local politics, business, and arts and culture. That's something that few institutions can do well, and the blogosphere mostly can't. SN also loves light, snarky blogs about Pittsburgh gossip and what's happening in their neighbor's backyard. That's something that anyone can do, and anyone does. I love the idea of a well-done gardening blog. But is this the PG's competitive advantage? Right now, the PG/SN marriage feels like a shotgun wedding.

If PG+ can generate some revenue -- subscriptions and, we have to hope, higher online ad rates -- then it might begin to turn the current vicious circle (mediocre journalism depresses circulation depresses ad rates undermines journalism) into a virtuous circle. If it can do that by persuading Diasporans to come to a playground, where the readers are "talking back" to the writers, so be it, but I'm skeptical that the playground formula will be enought to save the paper. At that rate, the playground will become the PG's focus and perhaps only purpose; print -- and more important, the journalism itself -- will fade away. Instead, hope for PG+ lies in quality writing. Even Steelers fans -- perhaps Steelers fans more than anyone else -- want that.

So let us watch PG+, and let us hope for the Post-Gazette's journalistic best.


4 Responses to "Even More News Your Can Use at the Post-Gazette"

Chris Potter said... 9/01/2009 1:29 PM

Just for the record, it's giving me too much credit to say I am "skeptical." Better to say I am "irked."

There's a lot of talk about how PG-Plus members would get special discounts and invitations to things. And of course my gut-level response was to say, "What am I? Chopped liver? I'm one of the few people I know who isn't freeloading off the Web site, but I'm not special enough to you yet?"

But I'm subject to these little fits of pique sometimes. Maybe I'll get over it.

As for the rest of your post, I'm in "wait and see" mode on this thing. I would pay to NOT have to read Jack Kelly ever again, so the idea of being charged a premium to hear more of his wit and wisdom ... that's a tough sell. But as P-G management told me, this thing is going to be evolving. And I've got a few months left on my subscription in any case.

Tim Murray said... 9/01/2009 1:43 PM

Amen, to everything.

Mr. Potter notes that the PG says this thing of theirs will be evolving? Better evolve fast. It will be shut down in three months if they don't offer a lot more.

Want to raise money, PG? Bite the bullet and charge for anything that says "Steelers" and "Penguins."

And pay the readers for anything that says "Pirates."

C. Briem said... 9/01/2009 2:34 PM

Hey, I need the premium gardening tips.. believe me I do.

Matthew said... 9/10/2009 1:14 AM

As much as I would hate it, I'd think the PG website would be better of going to an all subscription model. You want to read the paper? You can either pay for it online or pay for it in print. Giving it away for free is not exactly the best way to make a living.

Tim Murray has a good point--charge for the sports stuff and you just might break even.

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Updated September 2020:

Pittsblog 2.0 was written by Mike Madison, a law professor at the University of Pittsburgh, from January 2004 through December 2011.

Since then, Pittsburgh-themed essays have appeared from time to time at madisonian.net, on law and technology, and in some of Pittsburgh's classier professional media venues.

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