This is both really scary and really exciting.
Scary. The CSM is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. It's won
Of course, the CSM is based in Boston and serves a national audience, and there aren't many of those anyway.
Really exciting. I've long thought that newspapers' print editions should complement their online offerings, rather than vice-versa (for the record, this was my belief before I started working for a newspaper-affiliated Web site). The Web may be bottomless, but people tend to skim.
Print news hole, however, is not infinite, and furthermore, newsprint is fairly expensive, so you tend to fill as much as you have to, not as much as you can.
Ideally, what goes on the Web are all 300-to-500-word briefs and interactive elements like slideshows, photogalleries, videos, and Flash graphics. What goes in the paper would be 3,000-to-5,000-word versions of the best of the stories, along with large, interesting informational graphics.
The idea is not to see the two media as competing, and not even as places for duplicating content to reach a broader audience (though shovelware has, thankfully, gone out the window in most places). Instead, use each for its advantages. You don't need to cram another 200-word blurb about a fire at a vacant house into a corner of the paper, but you can stick it online and tie it to a 4,000-word piece about absentee owners and insurance fraud that's running in the paper.
The item the CSM put out about the switch cites a combination of 40 years of declining print circulation and a growing Web audience. I'm sure that could be said of almost every daily newspaper/Web site pair in the country – as our jobs become more mobile, our lives become more hectic and our wallets become thinner, we don't take as much time to read a newspaper, and if we're not taking the time to read it, many of us aren't buying it. But we're reading online, and through a variety of sources, including our mobile phones and headline aggregators, and through social media services like digg, Twitter and Facebook.
Yes, it's going to be tough, and I'm guessing they picked April 2009 because (a) they can ramp up the plan, (b) train people, and (c) have enough cash to get them through the next six months.
I think that a lot of companies are going to look at what the CSM does, and adopt or modify it as a concept. It's an influential news organization, and it's a changing world out there. I'm really looking forward to seeing what they do.