Chicago Tribune just relaunched its website with, of course, more blogs — A LOT more blogs — news, entertainment, sports, living, business travel, with multiple blogs in each category. It struck me that this is more than a “me too” step, as it was last year , when launching a blog was how traditional media sites tried to show they were still hip and relevant. Now, many newspapers — from the New York Times to my own local Loudoun Times-Mirror (which also just relaunched) — have dozens of blogs, covering every traditional newspaper topic.

What’s becoming clear is that blogs are now the organizing principle for newspapers’ original online content. And these are “real” blogs, i.e. driven by one or two individual bloggers, with (often active) comments, RSS feeds, the whole nine yards.

Washington Post’s newly launched hyperlocal site, LoudounExtra.com, is anchored by a strong blogger, and the site maintains a list of local bloggers. Sites like the Houston Chronicle have had a lot of success with setting up high-quality freelance blogs — this is not “citizen journalism” or reader blogging (as the Chronicle calls them — but they’re not readers anymore when they’re writing!) or (even worse) “user-generated content.”

These are freelance journalists, who happen to be doing it in their spare time and who happen to be using blogging software.

The word “blog” has way too much baggage — it’s too often equated with opinion. But a blog is just a content management system, and you can use it to publish shrill opinion, or you can use it to publish traditional journalism…or you can use it to publish journalistic reporting with a bit more point of view.

Most newspapers are actually using blogs as platforms for daily online publishing — platforms that allow one person to publish a “mini-publication.”

This got me thinking — maybe what newspapers should become in the digital media era is a network of local bloggers — some of whom are staff writers and some of whom are freelancers. Maybe most of them are freelancers. Maybe the full-time reporters are dedicated to beats like covering local governments, which require more time-intensive reporting to fulfill the Fourth Estate mission, but which can be supplemented by freelance reporting.

Maybe there are three tiers of journalists at these blog network “newspapers”:

  1. Full-time reporters and editors, who ensure breadth of coverage, quality and standards, and public mission
  2. Paid freelancers who write on a regular basis, but not full-time — these can be stay-at-home parents looking for supplemental income, retirees looking for extra income or to keep busy, college students, etc.
  3. “Witness” reporters (avoiding “citizen journalist” on purpose), who contribute to the reporting effort when they witness news in some form

Many newspapers are closer to this model than they may realize, but there a few radical steps required:

  • Use more freelancers who can post to blogs part-time
  • Create a platform for anyone to report news — but on the established blogs, not in some big sloshing vat of random submissions — if someone wants to contribute regularly, give them their own blog, a focus, and (just enough) structure

To really take advantage of the economies of this model, which could actually enable MORE local reporting, newspapers need to consider one final step — stop publishing in print.

The big problem with transforming newspaper business models is that there’s still so much less revenue online, and only the print revenue can cover the huge cost base of publishing the print paper.

But if newspapers adopted this lean, flexible, networked blog model, and stopped publishing in print, they would shrink costs radically, and, maybe…increase online revenue enough to make it work, IF online was the only game in town.

Most papers aren’t ready to seriously consider ceasing to publish in print, but they are ready to more deliberately restructure their news operations down the blog path they’ve already taken, so that when the time comes to consider stopping the presses — in five years, two years, next year — they will be prepared to survive the transition.