Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A New Model for the Hometown Papers

So here I am back from a five day absence. Blogger productivity is a function of ire and free time, and the last couple days I've been a bit shorter on both, not to mention mentally spent. It happens, but I'll try not to have it be too often.

A thought came to me the today on the subject of The Herald and its future as I was reading The Advocate: How is it that a free newspaper like The Advocate is not in any trouble while The Herald is on the verge of collapse? It can't be the measly 50 cents. It could very well be the lucrative income from about 10 pages of porn ads in the back section, which obviously is not a realistic solution for The Herald or the The Bristol Press, but I did think of some aspects of The Advocate that might suit the hometown dalies well if they are to survive into the future.

The first thing that struck me is that The Advocate is a weekly publication instead of a daily. This offers it a lot of advantages over a daily paper. It doesn't have to run the press every day, keeping production costs down. It gives journalists more time to work on their stories, resulting in better writing and better journalism (a subjective opinion, of course, but I challenge you to read a Herald article and an Advocate article and compare - which one was more informative on the subject? And which was more engaging?). It frees up the editors from having to fill an entire day's news cycle. Slow news days are common in New Britain. Slow news weeks are much easier to handle. It offers advertisers a better bargain to buy one ad and have it circulate around town for an entire week. It may also allow the paper to sell for a dollar and still pass along savings to regular readers while simultaneously cutting overhead. We wouldn't have to fill out page after page with statewide, national, and international news, plus the same classified ads and community calendar every day just to come up with enough material to justify printing; a week's worth of local happenings could easily pack a single edition.

So how to handle mid-cycle news in such a format? Daily updates of major breaking news could be made available on the website and then followed up in greater detail in the following week's edition. The website, in this case, would even require less maintenance, instead requiring one major weekly update followed by small daily updates when warranted. Gee, almost sounds like on of those new-fangled Blogs that the kids are using these days!

Somewhat-hyperbolic analogy time: Think of it like the music industry, which was tanking not because of illegal downloads, but because it kept producing, at ENORMOUS overhead, full albums from which the public only cared about one or two tracks. Apple has made a killing off of iTunes because it found a way to return the industry to a single-song format with very, very low overhead. Think of a weekly publication as a "Greatest Hits" album - the kind people still buy because the product is a sure thing and the record companies love because the overhead is pennies - and the product is a sure thing. Think of online updates when necessary as iTunes downloads. I still feel like I'm not describing it well, but I've been sick for the last three days so I may still have mucous on the brain.

And now, shifting gears a little bit: My humble opinion on any kind of bailout. I am not opposed to the idea of bailouts AS LONG AS there are some serious strings attached. IF the taxpayers are going to bail a company out, then there has to be one of two arrangements made:

1. The bailout is considered a debt and the taxpayers are, in time, entitled to their money back plus interest at the going rate.

2. The taxpayers now own the company as the collective majority shareholder and have the power to vote on how the company is run.

Some of you may be complaining that this idea sounds Socialist. I don't recall ever saying I was a free-market crank. However, I am not advocating state ownership in this particular case. State ownership of a newspaper is a horrible idea waiting to happen. Such an arrangement could be easily set up as a co-op with an elected Board of Directors, of which all citizens have an ownership stake. There would be no need for any government agency to be involved once the buyout is complete. Models such as this have used to great effect in the mixed economies South America's Southern Cone during the Developmentalist era (before the criminal goons from the University of Chicago helped the juntas decimate the region) and have made a comeback in countries such as Argentina in this century, albeit on a more grassroots level.

Just something to think about. I'm spent.