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Newspapers should give away free netbooks

Not that long ago, I wrote about the bond between the Daily News and its unique readership here in Philadelphia, which surveys have shown tend to be much more blue-collar and more African-American , among other things, than the typical American newspaper customer. The numbers and the anecdotal evidence from the streets of Philly also suggest that our readers are somewhat less likely to be the kind of person who toils in front of computer screen all day -- meaning that a rapid move away from the emphasis on the print edition would leave thousands of ink-only readers in the dust.

But the problem isn't completely unique to the City of Brotherly Love. Most major American cities have a "digital divide" -- a sizable gap between computer ownership and usage in working class and poorer urban neighborhoods and Internet activities out in the more affluent suburbs. But a problem -- like the digital divide -- also creates an opportunity. The arrival of much cheaper and more user friendly laptops called "netbooks" make it possible to kill two birds with one stone. A massive philanthropic efforts by large news organizations to bring these simpler computers into once-deprived households would create a bond of community between the media and its new, grateful online readers, and also make it easier for newsrooms to move more quickly away from the expensive print distribution model and into a bold new digital age.

The New York Times had a fascinating article this week about netbooks. It said, in part:

Personal computers — and the companies that make their crucial components — are about to go through their biggest upheaval since the rise of the laptop. By the end of the year, consumers are likely to see laptops the size of thin paperback books that can run all day on a single charge and are equipped with touch screens or slide-out keyboards.

The industry is buzzing this week about these devices at a telecommunications conference in Las Vegas, and consumers will see the first machines on shelves as early as June, probably from the netbook pioneers Acer and Asustek.

"The era of a perfect Internet computer for $99 is coming this year," said Jen-Hsun Huang, the chief executive of Nvidia, a maker of PC graphics chips that is trying to adapt to the new technological order. "The primary computer that we know of today is the basic PC, and it's dying to be reinvented."

If America's battered newsrooms were smart, they would jump on this. I know what you're saying, and you're right: Newspaper companies have not been smart, not for a number of years. Even now we struggle to catch up -- a lot of newspapers are now ambitiously launching...blogs (or in newspaperspeak, "blogs, which is short for Web logs") even as many of 2004's hot bloggers now spend much of their day on Twitter. It's not completely too late, though, for some real outside-the-box thinking -- not now, when having nothing left to lose is another word for freedom.

Big-city newspapers should be giving away netbooks.

They should have teams of people walking up and down the rowhouse streets of a city like Philly, giving these newfangled devices away to people who've been left behind by the Computer Age, and perhaps also offering them at reduced prices to people who can afford them and simply want easier or more convenient online access.

In return, these news organizations -- you really couldn't call them "newspapers" anymore if this scheme were successful -- would reap enormous benefits, including a community-relations coup and a closer bond with newfound online readers, a golden opportunity for branding their website (the Web address could, and should, be advertised on the new device), and the chartitable operation could even lead to a new news-gathering eco-structure (more on that in a second.) The newsroom-sponsored netbook drive would even offer flexability in the search for the Holy Grail of a new business model -- the goodwill generated by this could encourage voluntary donations from those with the ability to pay, in the mode of NPR, or it could possibly advance the paid subscription model coupled with free access to the neediest of the new netbook owners.

Earlier today, I pointed to an article about how legislation could help newspapers reform as Low-Profit Limited Liability Corporations, which would allow news orgs to function more like a charity because of their demonstrrated "social benefit." The effort is sure to get snickers from a lot of people -- especially the politically involved on the left and the right -- who think that journalists are deluded into grossly overstating the social benefits we provide. That's a legitimate debate, but what if newsrooms put their remaining muscle behind a program to provide information to the public and close the digital divide at the same time? That's "social benefit" we can beleive in!

Look, we all know that newspapers don't have much spare cash tucked under the mattress these days, not with so many in Chapter 11. But what if a newspaper like the Philadelphia Daily News were able to partner with one of the larger charitable organizations in town -- you (and they) know who they are -- to launch a netbook-giveaway program. What if the cost for these devices really comes down to $99 (and less if purchased in bulk). Do the math: A $1 million annual program could provide netbooks to some 15,000 families, and a 10-year program would close the digital divide in a large city like Philadelphia for good.

News orgs and their new philanthropic partners could leverage this effort in many ways. There surely could be an overt effort to link the computer giveaway to increasing readership of the news Web site. The netbooks could come programmed or even hardwired to automatically make its homepage, or the data -- like email addresses -- collected through the project could be used to promote readership by blasting out major news stories.

But a truly innovative newsroom would find even more clever ways to use a program like this, to completely rearrange the relationship between the journalist and the community. By that I mean the people spending their work days giving away the computers shouldn't just be functionaries but "news evangelists" - people who could work with these new netbook owners to convert those who are motivated into a network of engaged citizen journalists. They could also serve as the newsroom's eyeballs in these now under-covered urban neighborhoods, working to come up with new story ideas.

This netbook model would help solve two of the biggest problem facing today's newspapers: It would increase online readership and brand loyalty while speeding the move away from paper and thus the high costs of newsprint, printing presses and delivery trucks that are associated with it. It would not solve the revenue problem of online journalism, but it would buy some time and allow newsrooms to get their foot in the door, or on the rowhouse stoop, until that problem is solved.

Investing money to grow the brand and attract new readers, as opposed to a death spiral of cost-cutting? Crazy talk, I know. But Hunter S. Thompson, who would not have allowed journalism to die without a fight, said famously that when the going gets weird, the weird turn pro. And this idea might actually be weird enough to work.

(Programming note: You won't have regular Attytood posting to kick arouind for the next 10 days or so, as I am tapping into my days off for a kind of a spring break. I may throw up some open-thread posts for you people to do your commenting thing...if I can.)