Sometimes, to change things for the better, you've got to do something radical. You can't just make fixes and adjustments here and there. You've got to roll a hand grenade down the hall.
Let's roll a hand grenade down the hall. Let's try blowing up the very concept of a metro newspaper and thinking about it in an entirely new form. Instead of a big, one-size-fits-all newspaper/Web site, let's reimagine the local news product as a group of much smaller papers or sites, each aimed at a very specific segment of the local audience.
We'll start with a core: a package of general interest national, international, sports, arts and business news that each specialized edition will be wrapped around. You know, something like USA Today. Or The New York Times. This doesn't even have to be produced locally—indeed, it could even BE USA Today or The New York Times (or USAToday.com or NYTimes.com). Or it could be assembled from wire copy. It's the basic, non-unique, non-local news and information that any reader would want to find out what's going on in the world. That's the inside sections of our new product.
But it's what in the outer wrapping that's important: Individual editions featuring deep coverage of local news for specific towns or counties—the local information that's not available anywhere else. Major metros can no longer efficiently provide this kind of coverage. They're just, well, too big. They have problems finding space for superficial coverage of dozens of local communities, regardless of whether the audience is interested in what's going on five towns away. (Hint: They're generally not interested.) The big metros, in other words, need to be broken up into more easily digestible—and more focused—parts.
Put the newsrooms for these local editions in each community. The central downtown newsroom is an anachronism of a bygone era, especially when most readers in communities dozens of miles away. Bureaus aren't enough. Zoning doesn't cut it. These are tightly focused local editions with news and information that their immediate audiences want and need, and they need to be produced locally. Community papers that truly serve their communities, with reporters and editors who live in those communities, not downtown (you know who you are).
But that's not all. This same approach can be applied to creating news products tailored for specific demographic groups and interests. Aim one at women. Another at younger readers. Got a big local military community? Create a product specifically for them. Lots of tech companies? Do a tech-focused product. Do one for the local sports fans. Etc. The possibilities are endless, and here's a happy surprise: some households probably would subscribe to multiple editions, based on their interests. Get really slick about it and you could put a couple of different wraps around that central core for these multi-interest readers (yes, folks, it's almost the mythical Daily Me). And charge accordingly. This can be done either in print or on the Web.
Are there cost and revenue implications of this? Of course. The news organization would need to create newsrooms focused on local markets or specific topics (tip: get the readers to help provide the coverage). Customization of a printed product, and delivery of that product to specific customers, would be a challenge (it's a snap online). Advertising models would have to change considerably—or maybe not: advertisers wanting to reach the entire market could advertise in the core sections, or buy ads across all editions. (Good news: targeted audiences can command higher ad rates.) Those are all issues. Then again, so are plunging circulation and disappearing advertisers.
Is this a crazy idea? Well, consider this: There's precedent for it. In the 1960s and 1970s, the magazine industry underwent a similar transformation. The great general-interest magazines, including Life, Look and the Saturday Evening Post, succumbed to subscriber and advertiser distaste for one-size-fits all publications. In their place, a zillion specialized magazines thrived, serving targeted audiences looking for specific information of interest to them (and advertisers who want to reach those audiences). Specialization is pretty much the byword for the magazine business today.
We've seen some very limited experimentation with specialty publishing in the newspaper business: free dailies aimed at commuters, a handful of newspaper-produced high-end publications, a few classifieds shoppers emanating from major metros. But those are baby steps. Newspapers in major cities (and their Web sites) are just spread too thin to adequately serve their communities. Readers no longer feel the newspaper really serves them. The magazine industry proves that readers and advertisers want more specialization. Maybe it's time to roll a hand grenade—or two or three—down the hall.