As newspapers everywhere try to make money online, one newspaper is going in the opposite direction.
The Los Angeles Daily News will experiment, but with a new type of paper product. It will soon tell its subscribers: Print the newspaper yourselves.
MediaNews Group Inc., the nation's fourth largest newspaper chain and owner of the Los Angeles Newspaper Group, which includes the Daily News and eight other area dailies, plans to give specialized printers to its readers so they can produce their own customized editions. Subscribers can select the kind of news they want, and those articles will be sent to their printers every day.
The Daily News will be first to experiment with the service this summer; it's unclear when the group's other papers may join.
Newspapers in the past have experimented with customization programs and have tried to sell readers on the idea of printing at home; this appears to be the first time a company has tried to marry the two.
Analysts praised the willingness of MediaNews to take a risk with its print edition while many readers are moving to the Web. But some analysts feel the company isn't offering anything that would keep a reader's interest or attract new customers. And will readers want to install special printers in their homes and replace toner cartridges and fix paper jams?
"I can't imagine this is going to get a lot of market penetration," said Joshua Benton, director of the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.
Many questions about the service dubbed "individuated news" are unanswered, including whether readers would have to pay extra for the printers, paper and ink, and what options readers would have for customization.
MediaNews executives did not return phone calls.
In an article published March 6 in MediaNews' flagship paper, the Denver Post, company executives said individuated news would allow MediaNews to match ads with readers based on the type of content they requested. Executives also said that if the service tests well, mass-distributed copies of the newspaper might only be printed three days a week.
But if the service does not test well, MediaNews might pull the plug before trying it anywhere else, analysts said.
The plan has been widely panned on journalism blogs and in other publications. The Colorado Independent, an online news site, reported the story under the headline: "MediaNews Group: Print Your Own Damn Newspaper."
Benton said MediaNews was likely attempting to cut back on the cost of printing and distributing a newspaper while holding on to print advertising, which still accounts for a sizable chunk of most papers' revenues.
"They want the best of both worlds," he said.
MediaNews' foray into individuated news comes during a time of struggle for the company and its L.A.-area chain.
Newspapers everywhere have seen print circulation fall as readers increasingly flock to the Internet. Advertisers have followed them there, which is problematic because newspapers only make a fraction of the revenue from their Web sites as they do from their print editions.
Circulation at most LANG publications the Daily News, the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Torrance Daily Breeze, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, San Bernardino Sun, San Gabriel Valley Tribune, Pasadena Star-News, Whittier Daily News and Redland Daily has fallen over the past several years, according to the latest figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations. (The Redland paper had a slight increase in circulation from 2007 to 2008.)
Weekday circulation at all LANG newspapers totaled more than 513,000 and Sunday circulation about 566,000 in 2005. Now, weekday circulation is at 458,000 and Sunday at about 481,000, according to latest reports.
The Los Angeles Daily News has been slammed especially hard. Over the past year, its circulation has fallen by tens of thousands and it has cut its editorial staff to less than 80 people, down from more than 200 in the early 1990s.
Executives at MediaNews, which is privately owned, have said the company is in good financial health. But Alan Mutter, an independent media analyst in San Francisco, calculated that the company's bond ratings which currently is at a couple of notches above default mean MediaNews has a 72 percent chance of failing to make payments on its loans, which could push the company to sell off assets or file for bankruptcy protection.
MediaNews may be betting that individuated news will revive its fortunes. But Michael Parks, a professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and former editor at the Los Angeles Times, was skeptical.
"Advertisers may be interested in the novelty of this experiment, and there may be some who say this is exactly the way I want to get into the hands of potential buyers," Parks said, "but I don't see it generating enough revenue to pull them back from the brink."
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