What if back in 1998 newspapers invested in the Web?

Like really, truly invested in the Web.

What if newspaper editors, publishers and executives realized what many of us knew then that the Web was going to be huge? Think of where this industry could be today.

Howard Owens proposes a what-if for the ages:

Imagine if the Los Angeles Times had shifted 50 or 100 positions to web-only content production five or 10 years ago how much further along would LATimes.com be in audience growth today?

Howard’s question arose from the debate about various Tribune Co. reporter’s productivity — or lack thereof at papers like the LA Times. Mark Potts weighed in and said that big metros have never been that productive:

The dirty little secret of big-paper newsrooms is that, well, they aren’t all that productive. That’s what gave a little edge to that alleged anecdote about the Post’s productivity–there usually a lot of reporters and editors just sort of sitting around, reading papers. Every big newsroom has its share–more than its share–of reporters who write only occasionally, of editors who spend an unfortunate amount of time sitting and waiting for the next piece of copy to come in. For a lot of reasons, big newsrooms just aren’t very efficient–as a high-ranking editor at a big daily said to me recently: “We could put out the same paper with half has many people as we have now–but they’d have to be different people.”

Which brings us back to our little hypothetical: what if instead of fostering bloat and waste, newspapers instead reinvested those wasted man hours into innovation? Why doesn’t the LA Times jettison those less-than-stellar workers and pick up some different people? Let’s get rid of all the print workers who aren’t that valuable and replace them with dedicated and entrepreneurial Web people.

And if you the LA Times has unproductive Web people, get rid of them too. You know what they say: It’s never too late.

What if your paper, today, shifted several print positions over to the Web? What kind of innovative — possibly industry saving — products could be developed?

  • Dude, newspapers had a chance to invest back in 1994. From a story in the latest Vanity Fair:

    Jim Clark (investor in the first Web browser): I worked for a long time at Silicon Graphics, trying to build a competitive computer company, but eventually got frustrated. So in early ’94, I resigned and left the board and walked away from $10 million worth of stock options. Just left it on the table. The day I resigned, I met Marc Andreessen.

    One of the things that struck me at that early embryonic state was that the Internet was going to mutate the newspaper industry, was going to change the classified-ad business, and change the music business. And so I went around and met with Rolling Stone magazine. I met with the Times Mirror Company, Time Warner. We demonstrated how you could play music over this thing, how you could shop for records, shop for CDs. We demonstrated a bunch of shopping applications. We wanted to show the newspapers what they were going to undergo.

  • And there’s more from that story:

    Vinod Khosla (Created Sun Microsystems with Stanford classmates Scott McNealy and Andy Bechtolsheim, and Bill Joy): The media people essentially did not think the Internet would be important or disruptive. In 1996, I got together the C.E.O.’s of 9 of the 10 major newspaper companies in America in a single room to propose something called the New Century Network. It was the C.E.O.’s of The Washington Post and The New York Times and Gannett and Times Mirror and Tribune and I forget who else. They couldn’t convince themselves that a Google, a Yahoo, or an eBay would be important, or that eBay could ever replace classified advertising.