One of the interesting things about the end of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's print edition, which Mike noted on Monday, is how much more flexibility the PI will have to adjust to changing economic conditions now that it's an online-only publication. I don't think it's generally appreciated how constraining the newspaper format is. Readers expect a daily paper to be a certain size every day, and to arrive on their doorstep at a certain time every morning. Meeting those requirements involves a ton of infrastructure and personnel: typesetters, printing presses, delivery trucks, paper carriers, and so forth. To meet these infrastructure requirements, a paper has to have a minimum circulation, which in turn requires covering a wide geographical area. All of which means that as a daily paper's circulation falls below a certain threshold, it can lead to a death spiral where cost-cutting leads to lower quality, which leads to circulation declines and more cost-cutting. Of course, some papers manage to survive with much smaller circulations than the PI, but these tend to be either weekly papers (which tend to have a very different business model) or papers serving smaller towns where they have a de facto monopoly on local news.
These economic constraints, in turn, greatly constrain what journalists can do. They have a strict deadline every evening, and there are strict limits on the word count they can publish. Because newspapers have to target a large, general audience with limited space, reporters are often discouraged from covering niche topics where they have the greatest interest or expertise. Moreover, because many newspaper readers rely on the paper as their primary source of news, people expect their newspaper to cover a broad spectrum of topics: national and international news, movie reviews, a business section, a comics page, a sports page, and so forth. Which means that reporters frequently get dispatched to cover topics they don't understand very well and that don't especially interest them. The content they produce on these assignments is certainly valuable, but it's probably not as valuable as the content they'd produce if they were given more freedom to pursue the subjects they were most passionate about.
The web is very different. Servers and bandwidth are practically free compared with printing presses and delivery trucks, so news organizations of virtually any size—from a lone blogger to hundreds of people—can thrive if they can attract an audience. And thanks to aggregation technologies such as RSS and Google News, readers don't expect or even want every news organization to cover every topic. Here at Techdirt, we don't try to cover sports, the weather, foreign affairs, or lots of other topics because we know there are other outlets that can cover those topics better than we could. Instead, we focus on the topics we know the most about—technology and business—and cover them in a way that (we hope) can't be found anywhere else. In the news business, as in any other industry, greater specialization tends to lead to higher quality and productivity.
Moving online will give the PI vastly more flexibility to adapt to changing market conditions and focus on those areas where they can create the most value. The PI says they'll have about 20 people producing content for the new web-based outlet. That's a lot fewer than the print paper employed, but it's enough to produce a lot of valuable content. And now that they're freed of the costs and constraints of newsprint, and the expectation to cover every topic under the sun, it'll be a lot easier to experiment and find a sustainable business model.