Thursday, July 1, 2010

Keeping Your Eyes Open to Print Newspaper Innovation

The newspaper is dead. Long live the newspaper.

Print critics have been predicting the burial of print newspapers for many years now; in fact, the chairman of Tribune Company, Sam Zell, said this week that home delivery of newspapers will soon become a thing of the past, with papers being replaced by "PDFs."

I might reasonably question whether Zell knows what a PDF is, but it is true that the print news business has undergone traumatic downsizings, bankruptcies, layoffs, rising prices, audience losses, and hemorrhaging advertising revenue, and that it's been a tough haul for many if not most newspaper companies. They might be showing some success at reinventing themselves; a number of these large papers, including San Francisco's own Chronicle, are surprising people by reporting that they're back in the black, even as the larger economy continues to struggle. Still, it's probably a safe bet that papers will continue innovating and experimenting, until they come up with a stable new business model.

But the liveliness of print news is not restricted to these traditional publishers. Now that the old vision of what a paper is – what it must contain, how it must be designed and distributed and priced and consumed – has been blown apart, entrepreneurs are looking at print again with a fresh eye and realizing there are some exciting things that can be done with it. Readers ignore these experiments at their own peril. On the entertainment side, for example, last year DC Comics produced a 12-issue weekly broadsheet newspaper called Wednesday Comics filled with full-page color comics. It was only a limited experiment, but it might awaken some daily paper publishers to rethink the restrictions on their own comics pages. Make it bigger, more colorful, and worth reading on a large page, and you'll give readers a reason to pay a dollar or more each day for your paper.

And there's more. In June, SFPublicPress.org – a nonprofit online news service – produced a new broadsheet newspaper edition. A 28-page color paper with no advertising, the first edition carried a cover price of $2 and owes something to the bigger weekly newspapers of Europe (pick up a copy of Germany's Die Zeit the next time you're at Cafe de la Presse and you'll see what I mean). Maybe in future editions, Public Press can stick less to the traditional newspaper designs of U.S. dailies and can emulate more of these grand weeklies' bold and beautiful layouts. These papers that are not commuter papers; they're papers that entice you to put your feet up on your desk or stretch out on a couch and read about all kinds of things. News, opinion, entertainment, economics. Even comics.

And if you pick up a copy of this first print edition of San Francisco Public Press, be sure to stop on page 12 and read "Gulf Spill Puts Conservation in Spotlight," an excerpt from a recent timely Commonwealth Club Climate One panel discussion. And let the folks at SFPublicPress.org know what you think about their experiment.

[I originally published this in slightly different form here.]
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