No Magic Potion For Ailing Newspapers, But A Cocktail Of Remedies Might Help

imageThe notion that a number of U.S. cities could be without a local daily newspaper within two years has quickly approached the level of conventional wisdom. But instead of offering another dose of doom and gloom, MediaShift’s Mark Glaser offers alternative business models for newspapers that, if used in some combination, might offer hope for survival. Unfortunately, a lot of these ideas have been tried with mixed results at best:

Blog networks: Aggregating content outside the standard article frame from staffers, readers and freelancers can possibly make up for the loss of so many reporters and editors due to buyouts and layoffs, sounds like an attractive solution. And while it may help to draw more traffic, growing ad revenues may be a different story. Especially right now, with both digital and traditional ad spend severely constrained. Many magazine web publishers have gravitated to vertical ad networks, like Forbes and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (NYSE: MSO) and have achieved some measure of success. WashingtonPost.com’s ad net endeavor, Blogroll, effectively shut down due to lack of revenue last March. In any case, the ability of ad nets to begin to offset print losses is still a long way off. More after the jump.

Photo Credit: rammag

Classified networks: Craigslist is viewed as killer of the traditional classified ad model. While partnerships with Yahoo (NSDQ: YHOO) HotJobs or the McClatchy-Tribune-Gannett (NYSE: GCI) CareerBuilder are paying off, Glaser rightly argues that these efforts are not enough. He adds that newspapers have little hope of catching up to free classifieds sites. He recommends “super-charging” newspaper classifieds through add-ons that advertisers will pay for and attract users.

Crowdfunding: The virtual tip jar isn’t going to do more than buy drip coffee for a major paper. Asking readers for direct donations will only work on a limited basis for brand name reporters on a special project. The prime example is former Wonkette Ana Marie Cox, who asked fans of her work to help cover the costs of keeping up with John McCain’s campaign after Time magazine balked at paying her expenses. It worked, but it is hard to imagine an impersonal organization inspiring crowdfunding on a sustainable basis. Glaser also doesn’t think it can translate well to newspaper culture.

Hyperlocal ads: A number of newspapers have opened up hyper-local efforts in the past several months. Glaser singles out reverse-published print editions at Northwest Voice in Bakersfield, Calif., and Denver’s Your Hub. These online sections print notable online content packaged as special editions with print ads. At best, the hyperlocal ad model is hit or miss, Glaser concedes. Again, WaPo’s LoudonExtra was an early entrant into this area, but foundered due to what some considered its inability to connect with the community it covered.

Surviving the financial crisis: Glaser also touches on setting up local portals (tough to become “the trusted source” when established city guides have a head start), creating multimedia ads such as podcasts and video around reporters’ beats (though relatively cheap, it still takes a lot of money to get off the ground), forming niche sites around subjects like food or tech (how is this different from existing newspaper sections?), going the non-profit route (in these times, billionaire foundations’ pockets are not so deep), and the paid model that relies on old-fashioned subscription fees (if NYTimes.com felt it could make more money with out a pay wall, what makes you think a daily paper in Sheboygan can?). The best hope is that in combination, some of these efforts can help drive incremental revenue. Sadly, newspapers’ problems with the emergence of digital began a long time ago. The current marketplace will not be patient for quick fixes and incremental revenue drivers. But anything that nudges newspapers closer to digital viability may allow for basic survival until the economy turns around.

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