One-time titles as a business model for journalism?

I just fin­ished read­ing Alan Mutter’s review of the San Francisco Panorama, a one-time broad­sheet pro­duced by McSweeney’s that was recently sold on the streets for $5 an issue.

Mutter praises the writ­ing in the paper — well, it’s really more of a mag­a­zine on newsprint — which included in-depth inves­tiga­tive pieces and plenty of other hard, local news. You know, the expen­sive kind of news that most orga­ni­za­tions either can’t afford or can’t spend the time on anymore.

The sin­gle issue took 11 months to put together, and it sold almost all of its 20,000 copies within hours. Let me say this again: it’s a one-time deal. There are no plans to do another issue under the Panorama title.

Mutter says:

It’s not fair to mea­sure con­ven­tional news­pa­pers against the one-off issue of Panorama, which took 11 months to pro­duce with­out the eco­nomic, staffing and dead­line con­straints increas­ingly encum­ber­ing most other publications.

But this exper­i­ment serves as a refresh­ing and inspir­ing reminder of the strength of jour­nal­ism and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of print. Best of all, I am happy to report, the folks in line with me could hardly wait to read it.

And he’s right, dailies and even week­lies can’t hope to com­pare them­selves to this brand of jour­nal­ism. This is expen­sive, qual­ity work. Even the 16-page comics sec­tion was orig­i­nal — not a syn­di­cated strip in sight, from what I have read.

Mutter’s right about another thing too: Special issues like this can really bring peo­ple back to the printed word, at least for a few hours. A ques­tion comes to mind then. How do we bot­tle some of this print excite­ment and sprin­kle it onto dailies?

The eas­i­est answer to give is that news orga­ni­za­tions pro­duce spe­cial issues from time to time, stuffed with prize pieces that the staff has been work­ing on for a long time, months even. The spe­cial issue would be beau­ti­ful in its design and lay­out — not just the stan­dard text­book lay­outs designed to opti­mize story counts that you see in most papers on any given day. The ad depart­ment would sell the hell out of it, con­vinc­ing all the adver­tis­ers that space in the issue’s worth a lot more than in the every­day paper because, after all, this issue is spe­cial.

Then you print a lim­ited num­ber of issues of it and pro­mote the shit out of its release date. Build pub­lic excite­ment. Tell them they’ll never read any­thing bet­ter from you. Put a count­down timer on your home­page. Do any­thing to make sure peo­ple know that this is some­thing they don’t want to be left out of.

Oh, and of course, make sure it really is some­thing spe­cial. Because if it’s not, you’re in trouble.

This approach is great for a larger news orga­ni­za­tion. It might even work at a mid-sized paper that can afford even a few extra hours of staff time per week to work on these spe­cial projects. You also have to have a mar­ket with big enough sto­ries to cover, and let’s face it, not all mar­kets have enough of those to sup­port some­thing like the Panorama.

I’d like to pro­pose another idea, though. What if the one-time title could become a trend? Say that in a cou­ple years, McSweeney’s decides to do this again but it doesn’t use the Panorama title any­more. It invents another new flag.

Imagine, in mar­kets around the coun­try, entre­pre­neurs out­side the estab­lished local media set out to pro­duce one-time spe­cial issues of their own invented titles to cover some of the big sto­ries in their communities.

Where does their oper­at­ing money come from? Pre-sale adver­tise­ments? Community dona­tions? Investors who put up what would be a rel­a­tively small amount of money for a chance at a pretty good one-time return. All you have to do is care­fully bud­get your oper­at­ing money, sell expen­sive ads and set a rea­son­able (but rel­a­tively hefty) price for the issues.

Maybe six or eight months later, some other title comes out try­ing the same thing. Pretty soon, the coun­try starts to sprout all sorts of one-time titles, each cov­er­ing the issues in their com­mu­ni­ties in-depth.

Now, a moment of dis­claim. I am not an expert on han­dling money in any way. There are prob­a­bly con­crete busi­ness rea­sons why my idea won’t work that I’m unaware of. Still, I’m going to explain why this seems like com­mon sense to me.

It seems that an investor in such a project would be going into less risk with a one-time pub­li­ca­tion than if the same investor was going to put money into a weekly or daily paper. The pro­duc­tion costs of a sin­gle issue would be far less than the amount needed to keep it up every day. If the issue is a fail­ure, the loss would be less than watch­ing a news­pa­per bleed to death.

Heck, you could even do this sort of thing with a grant.

I’m run­ning out of thoughts here, but I’m really inter­ested to hear what other peo­ple think. Could the one-time title become a trend?