Posted on May 27th, 2008 No comments
It’s been more than a week since the Knight News Challenge winners were announced, which included our Printcasting project and many other cool ideas. It’s been really interesting to learn more about all the projects, many of which are about new delivery mechanisms for local news and community.
So now that the dust has settled, it’s a good time to address the unspoken question that I know is on many peoples’ minds.
I’m someone who has been involved in digital media innovation for 13 years, and one of the early people in the newspaper industry to bring user-contributed content and social networking into the fold. I know that online social media is redefining the entire media business model, and have even done my part to accelerate that.
So why in the world am I supposedly leaving online media to go back to print, which many techies (and not just a few traditional journalists) consider a dying medium? And why at a time when every month we see new reports of falling newspaper print circulation?
And the answer is that I’m not. On the contrary, I’m seeking to bring all of the energy and excitement of social media into the world of print, and make local print distribution of online content an integral part of the fabric of Web 2.0.
In all the justified euphoria surrounding the emergence of the social Web, I fear that the newspaper industry has developed some unhealthy biases about its native print medium that are based on the assumption that the print-to-digital transition is a zero-sum game. As a result, we see continued innovation around pure-play online content (good) and almost no true innovation in the print model (bad!)
Yes, there are plenty of redesigns and creations of new niche print publications, but those don’t count as true innovation of the model in my opinion. Just as we’ve done with user-contributed content, we need to think about fundamental changes in how print products are produced, and by whom, so that print is part of the social media revolution.
Arianna Huffington, the Huffington Post editor who spoke at this year’s Editor and Publisher Interactive Media Conference, put it best in her keynote speech. Said Huffington, “I don’t believe for a moment that print is dead. I think newspapers, and media in general, have a tendency to think about everything in terms of the delivery mechanism.”
And lately, in terms of innovation, we seem to be focusing mostly on the Web, a little on mobile and not at all on print.
I suspect this bias is partly to blame for why most newspapers still have “print people” and “online people” after more than a decade since the advent of the consumer Internet. With a few exceptions, anything new and cool tends to be focused 100% on the Web and completely ignore print. Newspapers seem to increasingly hire people who are focused on digital media, and lose people who focus only on print — which is a shame since both of those camps can, should and must come together.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the social networking forum that is either getting lost in the new-media hubbub, or intentionally ignored. While we see more and more activity in local online social networks, all of the real revenue growth is still in print. And it’s coming through the back door in new niche print products which contain content that’s submitted online by local consumers.
The concept of Printcasting really started in 2004 after the launch of The Northwest Voice, the first so-called “citizen journalism” product created by a U.S. newspaper. This is the now-familiar approach of letting people write stories about their neighborhood, which are then reviewed by an editor and placed in printed publications that are delivered to everyone on the block.
We see this with the Voice, others like it such as the Denver Newspaper Agency’s YourHub.com and magazines like New West and 8020. All of these work because they have print editions.
There are two reasons for that. First – and I know that this will shock some of the digerati – average people love the idea of seeing their content printed and locally delivered. That’s the primary reason they spend time writing their stories. I have no way to test this, but I would bet that the quality of content in citizen media products that include print editions is higher because people know that once it’s printed, everyone will see it and it can’t be changed.
And second, local advertisers also like print when they can afford it. When you see that newspaper advertising is faltering, it’s not because local businesses are saying they don’t want to advertise. They’re saying that they can’t afford the high rates required to print 70,000, 120,000 or 200,000 copies of the same ad in the hopes that it will reach the much smaller number of people it was intended for. Because we have not solved this problem, they increasingly avoid the newspaper and turn to more targeted local delivery mechanisms, such as direct mail (hello – a print medium!) which costs less to get a message out to locals who are more likely to want their products.
The bitter irony for newspapers is that of all industries, we have more experience around creating and delivering local news and information in print than anyone. And yet, even the U.S. Postal service, with it’s snazzy Click2Mail service, is doing a better job than we are at delivering customized information and advertising in print. Let me restate that for emphasis: an institution that is part of the bureaucracy-laden federal government is doing more around personalized print delivery than newspapers.
With all due respect to the post office, that’s just pathetic.
At The Bakersfield Californian, we’ve had a lot of success with local niche-focused social networks that include print editions. We’re very good at identifying an audience with unmet information needs, creating a publication and Web site, and leveraging peoples’ online contributions for printed magazines. And we’re getting better at selling ads in those publications.
But the challenge is that for every audience we identify, there are 100 others that we miss and may never identify, and even if we did we could never hire enough people to manage those publications and Web sites. That’s the nature of todays fragmented media world, where less time and more choices naturally eat away at traditional aggregation-centered media models. That’s where automation and citizen publishing tools come in – the very heart of the Printcasting concept. We want to, and really need to, tap into peoples’ passions so that they can create new niche publications all on their own which local advertisers can afford.
If this idea sounds interesting to you, I hope you will join our growing community of interested individuals at our Web site: http://www.printcasting.com. It’s a place to review our ideas and participate in discussions that will help ensure this project is a success. And I hope it also has another effect of breaking down the self-inflicted, anti-print stigma that has developed over the years.
The attitudes about print aren’t all bad, by the way. Over the last few months I’ve been happy to discover that there are many people and companies out there that are orbiting around the same basic ideas. Tha
nks to MediaNews Group’s Peter Vandevanter, there’s even a global personalized print conference (in which I’ll be a participant). Thanks to the convergence of good ideas and promising new print technologies, we may be at the beginning of a new global movement around personalized print creation – the child of the Zine explosion of the 1990s. It couldn’t come at a better time, or a moment too soon.
Posted on May 19th, 2008 No comments
The Rocky Mountain News has a story today about Printcasting, a tool we’ll be building that will let local people aggregate RSS feeds and local advertising in personalized print publications (through PDFs). Printcasting is one of 16 winners of this year’s Knight News Challenge. Thanks to Janet Forgrieve for doing a good job with the interview and final story.
And with that — even though I can get this online, I’m off to a coffee shop to pick up a copy in print for my scrapbook. Print still matters!
Posted on May 19th, 2008 No comments
Mark Glaser from PBS’s Mediashift blog has a great post about a training session at the Knight Digital Media Center in Berkeley, California. It included two of my colleagues at The Bakersfield Californian: Jason Sperber, our Community Content Coordinator, and Jennifer Baldwin, Contributions Editor.
What Jennifer says about local users really wanting to see their content in print is true, and it’s partly what inspired us to think about how to make it even easier to make that happen through Printcasting. I’ll be spending the next two years work on that project, thanks to a generous grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation — part of their five-year, $25 million Knight News Challenge program.
Speaking of Jason Sperber, he, Mary Russo and a larger cross-company team just launched a new site for local parents using Bakomatic called Raising Bakersfield. It will also have its own print edition. Kudos to them!
Posted on May 14th, 2008 No comments
Well, the cat’s finally out of the bag. For the next two years, I’ll be working on a Knight News Challenge grant-funded project for The Bakersfield Californian called Printcasting. And I can’t wait to get started!
The idea, proposed by myself, Justinian Hatfield and Mary Lou Fulton (my colleagues in the Californian’s New Products group), is called Printcasting. We think it’s the next logical step in the evolution of local news, and has great promise to revolutionize how local consumers and advertisers relate to local media.
Printcasting will make it possible for anyone to create a local printable newspaper, magazine or newsletter that carries local advertising — all for free — by pulling together online content from existing sources, such as blogs, and combining it with local advertising that matches the content.
Through web software that we will build, an aspiring print publisher won’t need any technical knowledge, design skills, software or even content to create printable publications. If you’re passionate about a local interest – which could be anything from a local sports team to a local hobby like fishing – and you have an Internet connection, you’ll be able to set up your own publication in minutes.
New editions will automatically be created as PDFs (Adobe’s Portable Document Format) and sent to readers in e-mail. This is similar to a Podcast, which uses RSS feeds to send out new MP3 files — thus the term Printcasting.
The beauty of this idea is its simplicity. All a publisher will need to do is choose which blogs to feed into his or her publication, pick a publication template, and choose how often new editions should be sent out. Local readers will then be able to search and browse for Printcasts that match their interests, read and subscribe. Every template will be optimized to look good on both home printers, and larger-run presses.
From a purely gee-wiz, altruistic level, I’m hoping that we can use Printcasting to bring back the Zine explosion of the 1990s. The desire for ordinary people to create their own print products has been around for decades, and in my opinion the first real push into what we call “user contributed content” today started with the advent of desktop publishing tools. The Internet and, eventually, blogging, eclipsed that movement, but it never went away. I see Printcasting as an effort to bridge the gap between local user-generated content online and local distribution through print — a logical evolution of what the Californian started with The Northwest Voice. But now, instead of just letting people contribute to our publications, they can participate in the role of the publisher themselves.
But there’s another motivation for doing this. At the Californian we’ve discovered that even though consumers are moving online and using social networking tools — both those provided by us, and others like Facebook — the local advertisers aren’t moving as quickly. I used to think this was a matter of education, but I think it’s more than that. Local advertisers like to see their ads in the physical world, with people coming into a store with a printed coupon in their hand. And they like to walk down the street and pick up one of our various niche publications — many of which contain content which was contributed by regular people online — and see their ad on page 3. This is why The Northwest Voice, which is powered by stories readers post online, still generates most of its revenue from its print edition.
So this creates a conundrum for us, and most local media companies. We know that most of our revenue growth as a company is in niche publications. We have 10 print-online hybrid brands in Bakersfield now about everything from young downtown hipsters to local parents. The challenge? There are thousands of other niche interests that we haven’t even begun to tap into.
For all these reasons, the other aspect of Printcasting is about revolutionizing local niche advertising in print. We will give local advertisers a way to find Printcasts that match their target demographics and interests, and then create targeted print ads online. They’ll only pay for the ads that run in Printcasts that we know are delivered.
This is exactly what many local advertisers who can’t afford the one-size-fits-all daily newspaper are looking for. They want to get a specific message out to a specific type of consumer, and they only want to pay for the ads that reach their target users.
Who Gets That Money? We plan to share ad revenue with everyone who contributed to the success of a Printcast publication.
For example, if content from your fishing blog appears in a Printcast about fishing that has a $10 ad in it, you’ll get a portion of that $10. And if you’re the one who decided to create a Fishing magazine, you’ll also get a cut. The rest will go toward the bottom line and ongoing maintenance of the network.
A lot of this may sound far-fetched, but we’ve done our homework and we know it’s possible . All of the content is out there already thanks to the explosion of user-generated content in recent years. In Bakersfield, California, where this concept will be road-tested, we’ve already identified 1,000 locally focused blogs, and we know that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Each of those blogs has an RSS feed that allows content to be extracted and used elsewhere. RSS allows us to capture and flow content into PDF templates on the server without any ongoing work by the publisher. This is similar to how a Podcast works, but instead of sending out MP3 files, we’ll be sending out PDFs with fresh local content.
Then, there are several open-source tools that can generate PDF documents on the fly on a Web server.
It was only a matter of time before someone decided to bring those tools together and market it to local consumers. Call it reverse publishing, rss-to-PDF, or something else, but we believe it’s the future of print publishing.
We plan to allow other types of advertising to appear in Printcasts, too. There are already a few experiments out there that let businesses create self-serve advertising in print, including Google, Yahoo and others. And we know that there’s a lot of remnant ad inventory — both national and local — that is looking for targeted placement. We hope to find ways to feed ads from other platforms like these into Printcasts.
The other advantage for a newspaper company in particular, but which really applies to any company that has printing capabilities, is that it’s a more efficient way to create and monetize local niche publications. Printcasting will make it possible for newspapers to serve many more niche audiences in print without needing to dedicate staff to every niche interest. Considering the thousands of niche interests in any one city, leveraging a local community’s desire to participate in media is the best and, in some case, only way to do this effectively.
We also think we can use revenue sharing as a carrot to improve quality. Several times a year, The Bakersfield Californian will choose a set number of Printcasts to mass-print and distribute. This will be in our best interest because we’ll be able to run our own ads in them, in addition to any other targeted advertising we may find. Contributors to those specially chosen Printcasts will get a cut of that revenue, too.
Among the people who may want to use Printcasting are people with an idea for a new local publication (now they can get one going for free); community organizations that want an easier way to produce their newsletters; or even a local newspaper like The Bakersfield Californian th
at wants to create niche publications from existing content. In phase 2 of this experiment, we’ll reach out to these audiences and promote the Printcasting concept.
We have two years to complete this project, but it will roll out in three phases. Our first major deadline is roughly 9-10 months from now, when we plan to launch the first version of Printcasting in Bakersfield, California. We will spend 9 months promoting the product and fine-tuning the tools. Then, in the last six months, we will sign up five other sponsors (newspapers, print shops, etc.) in other cities to launch Printcasting there.
And after that? You will be able to help decide where Printcasting goes next. Under the terms of our grant with the Knight Foundation, all News Challenge projects must be developed as an open source product, meaning that anyone will be able to download and use the software for free. All of the tools, documentation and learning will be available for anyone to use under open source GPL and Creative Commons licenses.
For more information, please see this presentation, which was submitted along with the original proposal. Or go to Printcasting.com, an interactive space we’ll use to solicit and share ideas and provide updates on the progress of this project.
[Addedon May 16]: After the announcement I had several people ask me if I’m leaving the Californian to pursue this project. The answer to that is a solid NO.
This grant is to The Bakersfield Californian. I did a lot of the heavy lifting on the proposal and concept generation (with a lot of help from others), and we agreed that I should lead the project. But I will very happily remain an employee of The Bakersfield Californian. And in addition to that, I will still work in the New Products Group that I’ve been on for the last 4 years.
There will obviously be some shifting of responsibilities — and new faces — to make this possible, as we’re essentially doubling the amount of work that we need to do on a daily basis. We hope to have that worked out soon.