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?