It's becoming abundantly apparent that even a robust online presence can't rescue newspapers as we know them. The problem is simple: online revenue, while growing, can't replace the print losses. This has seriously undermined the profits margins of big-city dailies, from the New York Times to the Los Angeles Times to the Washington Post. Small-market dailies are having an easier time of it, but that's because they have lower costs to support and don't need to become online powerhouses.
Web traffic for newspapers keeps growing, but not fast enough for Washington Post staffers, who on Wednesday learned there would be yet another round of voluntary buyouts at the paper.
The buyouts - up to 48 news staffers at the Post, according to the paper's ombudsman - are the latest in a new round of cuts at major newspapers as online traffic grows and overall unemployment numbers fall nationwide.
The average number of daily visitors to Washington Post's site jumped by more than 3 million, or nearly 15 percent, during the last quarter of 2011, according to a study released last week by the Newspaper Association of America.
The number of unique visitors over that period increased nearly 6 percent, while the total minutes visitors spent on the site rose by 14 percent.
But all those eyeballs are not translating into real money, or at least not at enough of a clip to cushion circulation losses and declining print advertising revenue.
There's nothing wrong with moving from a print to an online identity. The New York Times and the LA Times have done it more-or-less successfully (although the LAT's patent company, bankrupt Tribune Co., has a terrible idea in a proprietary tablet). However, the online model fragments a brand and pushes the value of previously expensive content toward free.
A lot of professional journalists will work for peanuts, for the love of the game, for the delicious free coffee. But very few will work for free.
So you really have two scenarios: a hybrid print-online model which is steadily eroding the value of the print brand; and an online-only model that's increasingly relying on unpaid labor.
Oh wait, there's a third option: Start the print business from scratch. I'll admit this is idealistic, but if you "rightsize" a print product from the get-go, you can avoid lugging around the anchor of legacy costs. There's precedent for this. My favorite example is the New York Review of Books, which was born during a labor dispute in 1963.
This is from the Wikipedia entry: "During the New York printing strike of 1963, when The New York Times had ceased publication, the founders of The Review seized the opportunity to establish a vigorous book review. They knew that book publishers would advertise their books in the new publication, since they had no other outlet for promoting new books."
The publication is still around, with a circulation of just over 130,000. That a far cry from the big-city dailies. And the NYRofB only comes out every two weeks. But it's a sticky publication. And it provides an excellent platform, to this day, for publishers — even as their business is disrupted by the Internet.
The idea of the major metro daily is one that Web-istas are familiar with: aggregation. But it's old-school aggregation, of a time-consuming sort. You put all these stories together and tell readers that this is what's going on, with news, business, sports, entertainment, and so on.
The New York Review of Books was an early example if disaggregation: it took the New York Times Book Review "out" of the paper and allowed it stand on its own, in a reinvented editorial form that inspired a new kind of discursive book reviewing. The audience was — and is — very tightly focused: intellectuals who get their insight (still) largely from books. The debates in the letters section are legendary — the blog comments of their day.
If there's a future for print, disaggregation could be it. Inexpensively produced pamphlets, basically, targeted at specific audiences. MUCH smaller staffs. Viewed this way, the old city dailies are, perhaps, too big to succeed.
You have these publications out there already; they're called trades. But their audiences are extremely specific. And importantly, they aren't very sticky, mainly because the pubs are just packaged information (for the most part) rather than made up of writing that people can connect with. Janice Min has done a nice job pushing the Hollywood Reporter in this direction.
So what do you think? As newspapers fade, can print be rescued by startups that...start all over?