It came up in an good conversation at the NiemanJournalismLab at Harvard. The opening post was titled Endowing every U.S. newspaper: $114 billion. Innovation: Priceless. Productive discussion. About 20 comments last time I looked.
Someplace in the middle of it, I said (this version is slightly edited)
“With those assumptions, how many people would we need?”
3 per beat. An outside person, an inside person and a great writer (rewrite).
The outside person walks the street, has meetings, interacts in the real world. She writes her notes on a blackberry, which goes onto a wiki.
The inside person is online as close to 24/7 as possible. Can be offsite. Could be done by an excessed journalist, or perhaps two part time Baby Boomers working from home to keep a 24/7 watch.
The rewrite person could also be anywhere. Works in the cloud.
The inside person twitters, blogs, stays immersed in the conversations in the cloud. The info is organized in a wiki. The inside person keeps the wiki neat and straight.
Then when an event occurs, all the background information is at hand. Any member of the 3 person team can spark the story.
The rewrite person - an expert writer - gets a fact sheet from the other two. Then starts writing. Posts the story on the wiki.
When the publishing event is about to happen, central production goes to wiki, gets the story and copies into a layout program or the web.
The paper is grown organically beat by beat. Usually the best beat to start with is education. Every parent in any area is focused on education.
Depending on the region, beats are added as interest and advertising are developed. First on the web, if it garners enough hits to earn it’s place in the paper, the beat gets into Print.
You build the audience and the advertising on the web, when it’s mature, only then does it earn a place in the valuable real estate of the Printed page.
How to get from here to there.
1. Identify your best best reporter. The quality of the work is more important than the beat.
2. Given her beat, find two other great people to team with her.
3. Use the job definitions as above.
4. Measure the clicks on the website to that reporters stories. Count the number of comments and the reporters responses on their beat blog.
5. Once you get to a reasonable number, give that beat a page in Print.
6. Measure the clicks and comments after each issue.
By this time the reporter you will know whether this reporter has a following. I would call them fans. Invent things to sell to the fans. Books are easiest. If the beat is high school education, do a compilation of the stories and an edited compilation of the comments. Offer it for sale on the web site.
Once you've got this right for one beat, then do it with another beat.
If you want to be really cool, comp the reporter for the stuff you sell to her fans. As long as you're giving good health and there is a long tail upside you should be able to get great people at a reasonable cost.
While all this is going on, focus on the people who want to reach the identified fan base. My bet is that they will be happy to advertise both on the web and in Print.