2009 is shaping up to be an interesting year for the newspaper industry.

As the economic downturn accelerates the severe declines in print
revenue most major newspapers have been experiencing, the imperative
for change will only get stronger. Indeed, 2009 may be a make or break year for many of them.

The New York Times’ decision to sell advertising on its front page, something it had never done before in its 157 year history, is just one example of the significant changes many newspapers will likely make in 2009.

In October 2008, The Christian Science Monitor announced that it would be the first nationally circulated newspaper in the United States to go all-digital.

Now another may follow suit.

The Seattle Post Intelligencer (Seattle PI), which is owned by Hearst Corporation, is in dire financial straits. It lost $14mn last year alone, which represents just a fraction of the money Hearst has invested in it. Things are only expected to get worse this year.

Hearst is now looking to sell the Seattle PI within the next 60 days. Given the paper’s financial situation, the prospect of a buyer surfacing seems quite unlikely.

If a buyer is not located, reports are that Hearst will either shutter the newspaper altogether or it may go all-digital.

Such a move would obviously force Hearst to drastically restructure the Seattle PI’s operations to cut costs.

The $64,000 question, of course, is whether or not newspapers will be able to transition to an online-centric format profitably while maintaining a high level of quality.

As we’ve reported before, despite the fact that newspaper websites have done well traffic-wise, the revenue side of the equation is still problematic.

Thus, for an online transition to succeed, newspapers will have to face the challenge that all online publishers face – how to produce content that drives monetizable traffic for less than the amount of revenue that content brings in.

That’s no easy task, and it will likely be made more difficult as newspaper executives and employees adjust to their new realities. Content is content but there are significant differences between the world of print and the world of electrons.

As more and more newspapers consider the possibility of going all-digital and some inevitably make the attempt, I think it would be worthwhile for newspaper owners like Hearst to consider that bringing online publishing veterans and experienced bloggers into the fold as part of a restructuring might help make the transition easier.

I’m sure there are more than a few online publishing executives and bloggers who would jump at the opportunity to be a part of the historic shift in the newspaper industry and who could help shape it for the better. Given the economic downturn, I’m sure there’s no shortage of online talent willing to help an old industry renew itself online – if it’s willing to reach out to them.

The New York Times seems to be welcoming fresh minds and new ideas. Will it save the newspaper? It’s certainly worth a shot and hopefully other newspapers will leave nothing untried as they fight to survive.