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Bright spots for newspapers 

It's no secret that American newspapers are in trouble. You can read about it in any magazine, news Web site, or, yes, newspaper. Every day, it seems, we learn that some paper is reducing its product to three editions per week, another paper is cutting its staff by nearly half, and yet another is going to a Web-only presence. Charlotte's daily paper has cut its staff severely and raised prices while putting out Monday and Tuesday editions that feel like pamphlets. The print edition of the paper you're reading is smaller than it used to be, as is the staff that puts it out.

The collapse of newspapers is happening much faster than anyone foresaw, and the media keeps piling up gloom-and-doom stories galore. There are, however, a couple of bright spots, or perhaps bright examples, that may point the way to a stronger future for news gatherers, although the media, including newspapers, have been slow to report them.

The first question newspapers have to resolve is what to do with their Web sites. As it stands now, you have to pay 75 cents for an old-fashioned, print edition of the Charlotte Observer, but you can read it online for free. That, to my mind, is kind of nuts, at least as it stands now, with precious little online advertising to support the paper's site. Some industry analysts are saying newspapers have to, simply have to, start charging for their online product ­-- and reports last week noted that the New York Times is thinking of doing just that. OK, maybe so. But it seems to this longtime newsprint junkie that the onus is on newspaper execs to -- OK, don't laugh -- be creative, particularly in finding ways to increase online advertising revenues.

If nothing else, papers could try to figure out how the Wall Street Journal has managed to make its online operation successful. (WSJ is the only daily paper in the United States, as far as I know, that turns a profit by charging readers for access to its online content.)

The newspaper industry also needs to pay someone to seriously study -- and quickly -- why European newspapers are in generally better shape than their American counterparts. Sure, some European papers are hurting badly and will probably be lost, and a few French papers are being propped up by government subsidies, something that's not likely here, but others are performing surprisingly well. Circulation is falling at European papers, but at a slower rate than in the United States. Analysts say one reason is that European publications are more dependent on reader purchases and subscriptions, rather than on advertisers who, as is evident today, tend to scatter during economic hard times.

As the New York Times reported recently, German publisher Axel Springer, which owns Bild, the biggest newspaper in Europe, is doing particularly well. In March, Springer reported the highest profit in the company's history, and its CEO says he's looking for opportunities to expand, perhaps even in the United States.

In Oslo, Norway, the publisher Schibstad has increased its online revenue to the point that it now comprises a majority of the company's profit. They did this primarily with a Web site called VG Nett, which rakes in healthy amounts from advertising, but also finds ways to draw money from users. For instance, users can join a VG Nett-sponsored weight-loss club, buy live streams of soccer matches, or upgrade their profiles on VG Nett's own social networking site. All of these European innovations and policies are worth considering, and should be considered by the American newspaper industry.

Another option that could save newspapers, and it's one that's been gaining traction in discussions of the news business in the United States, is to turn newspapers into nonprofit, endowed institutions, sort of like universities. Such a drastic move would stand the current business model of newspapers on its head, but few observers doubt that something drastic is what is needed. Endowments from various foundations could shield newspapers from the economic struggles that are now destroying them, while giving them more funding to do the serious, expensive work of investigative journalism.

The idea is catching on. Paul Steiger, former managing editor of WSJ, founded ProPublica, an excellent online investigative reporting operation that is run as a nonprofit. Steiger found two philanthropists to pledge $10 million per year, and he now runs a newsroom containing multiple former Pulitzer winners, who've been cranking out terrific investigative pieces for the past year.

Other journalists have practically begged philanthropists to take over struggling daily papers in Boston, L.A. and Baltimore, and the Washington Post's former managing editor recently called for some mega-rich person or another to endow that newspaper's operations.

One mega-rich person who's chomping at the bit to turn a major paper into a nonprofit is media mogul David Geffen, who tried, unsuccessfully, to acquire the Los Angeles Times. As reported last week, Geffen is now interested in buying a 20 percent interest in the New York Times with the intent of shifting the "Gray Lady's" business model to one similar to that of the St. Petersburg Times, which is controlled by the nonprofit Poynter Institute for Media Studies.

The current crisis in the newspaper industry isn't irreversible, but, again, it will take some creativity, a willingness to overturn familiar business models, and, finally, the humility to admit that perhaps someone else has come up with ideas worth adopting.

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