Making Print Pubs a Vital Part of Web 2.0

    by Dan Pacheco
    June 18, 2008

    In the 13 years I’ve been involved in online media, I’ve learned firsthand how dangerous it can be to be lead by ideology. Ideals are great, but if you become too invested in them they can blind you to the real needs of the customers you’re trying to serve. And when it comes to innovation – which is part of the brand of The Bakersfield Californian newspaper where I work – the temptation to drink your own Kool-Aid is huge.

    So it’s not without some humility that I come to you today with a confession. My name is Dan Pacheco, and I am a print-is-dead-a-holic.

    For the last four years, I’ve unintentionally helped fuel the fire behind the idea that the best way to grow online audience and revenue is with pure-play online products. We built our own social networking platform called Bakomatic, and have used it to create a network of 11 audience-focused participatory sites. In a few short years, we’ve managed to get 10% of the population of Bakersfield to create profiles, and an even larger number to regularly post their own stories, blogs and comments.


    But something funny happened on the way to the online forum, and it directly ties to our Printcasting project, one of the 2007/2008 winners of the Knight News Challenge. Despite all of my futuristic ramblings about the virtues of social networks, our niche print products are also doing great, and in some cases better than their associated Web sites. And when it comes to money, the growth in print advertising revenue continues to exceed that of the Web sites.

    Let me state this another way. The youth-oriented Bakotopia.com that I started was a pure online-only brand for its first two years, and as a Web site it never made a significant amount of revenue from local advertising. A year ago we debuted Bakotopia magazine – which is like a “best of” rollup of the same content online – and the same businesses who had a million questions about online ads instantly wanted to buy ads.

    Then, to my shock, the same people who contributed to Bakotopia were rushing out to get the latest Bakotopia magazine, even when they’d read the same content on their computer screens. We can tell that when a new print edition comes out, they start submitting content online again in the hopes that it will be selected for the next print magazine. This digital-print hybrid behavior is true across all 6 demographic groups we’ve tried it with, including youth, who are supposedly not interested in print.


    Crazy, huh? But that’s your ideology speaking. It should have been obvious that for a community of local people and businesses, a physical presence like a print product matters. A Bakotopian who frequents local clubs and art events can’t help but pick up Bakotopia magazine to see who’s in it. Businesses know this, and they see it happening, so they pay for the ads.

    Another ideological road block is that this seems to be at odds with what you read about declining newspaper circulation. The truth is that there are two separate trends when it comes to printed publications. While an increasing number of people are moving away from the one-size-fits-all “daily brick” that is the traditional newspaper, they are moving toward multiple information products with tighter niche focus. A move toward niche interests is not the same as a move away from an entire platform. (A tangent to this is that the daily newspaper is slowly but surely becoming its own niche product, but that’s another discussion).

    Once we realized what was happening, we started thinking about how we could really tap into this new behavior. Most of our local media growth was in niche social networks with print products that contained targeted advertising, but we’d need hundreds or even thousands to make this strategy worthwhile. We could never hire enough editors, publication designers and salespeople to do anything on that scale, and wouldn’t want to.

    The solution we came up with was to make print part of the fabric of our local Web 2.0 universe and turn print publishing over to the readers themselves. I won’t get into all the details here, but the basic idea behind Printcasting is that anyone can publish a printable newspaper, magazine or newsletter. You won’t need any money, fancy software, design skills or even content to do it. The tools we’ll build will let you choose content feeds from our social networking sites – and any blog with an RSS feed – and flow them into a professionally designed PDF document. Others can read and even subscribe to receive them online.

    We’ll track demographics of readers and allow local businesses to target their ads to specific audiences. And we’ll track downloads too, so that if we see a citizen publication that’s regularly in the top 10 we may print 1,000 copies of it and distribute them to local people who match the target. Why would we do that? Because we will also run our own ads in those publications (sort of an American Idol approach to publishing).

    Finally, anyone who contributed to the financial success of a publication will get a cut of the revenue – from the content providers to the publishers to the network that made it possible.

    It’s a tall order, but we have time on our side. Thanks to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, we have 9 months to build the product, and another 9 months to deploy it in Bakersfield and make it better. In the last 6 months of our grant, we will extend Printcasting to organizations in five to-be-determined cities, partnering with companies such as newspapers or print shops who want to get a local foothold on this new opportunity. At the end of the project, all of the code will be made available under an open source license.

    Sound interesting? You can follow our progress and share ideas and feedback on a social network we’ve set up at http://www.printcasting.com. And of course, I’ll be posting updates here for the next two years. In either case, we’d love to get your ideas and feedback. And if you’re a PHP programmer with some contracting time, we should definitely talk!

    Tagged: citizen journalism citizen publishing local newspapers print printcasting
    • This type of targeted reverse publishing has excellent promise, and I’ll be very interested in how this project progresses.
      I had seen a couple of other examples of community sites successfully creating a print product, and if I can find the links, I’ll update my comment.
      Best of luck!

    • Thanks! We also know of a few successful digital-print hybrid products, including Morris’ Bluffton Today and the Rocky Mountain News’ YourHub.com.

      One thing I have noticed is that most of the citizen media sites that have print components are still around, but those without are either struggling or, sadly, have disappeared. The latter weren’t able to make enough money to justify continued funding (that’s not a judgment — just an observation).

      I have talked to some of the folks behind those that didn’t make it and they have told me that they talked about having a print component. By the time they realized that print had a role, they couldn’t afford the additional cost and they folded.

      Part of the appeal of Printcasting is that it begins to solve that problem. It won’t provide free printing and distribution, but it lower the barriers by making your content instantly printable so that you or someone who wants to provide printing services can more easily step in. And there’s an economic incentive for them to do that because they can run additional ads on your content. They get some of that money, and so do you, so it’s a win-win scenario.

      I suspect distribution by cell phone, and devices such as the Amazon Kindle (with a way better interface) could provide additional distribution options. However, when you’re talking about a hyperlocal area such as Bakersfield with a lot of mom-and-pop shops, the local business bias toward print may still result in higher ad rates than you could get for digital. That won’t be the case forever, though.

      Our system will be built to leverage print, but not depend on it. All of the content choices people make will be maintained online in what we’re calling “microsites” and it should be straightforward to eventually make a mobile-friendly version of it. That won’t be our initial focus, but it will be an option.

    • Dan:

      Great post, and great project. For all of the obsession at times with the promise of digital media, it’s worth remembering that there is still enormous potential for innovation in print media. People who love print, really love print. It’s still a great user interface. It’s why people still read books, after all. Print creates a different emotional and psychological experience.

      And, as your post notes, you can actually make money on print, unlike most social networks and video.

      The challenge, then, is for newspapers to find better ways to serve readers who like print.

      The real problem, in my view, with newspapers today is less the journalism, and more the product. Generally speaking, we give people one version of our product, at one time of day. What people want is more choice, more customization, in how they get that product. This project represents a giant step toward delivering on that promise.

      I’m eager to see where it goes.

    • Thanks, Chris. I couldn’t agree more.

      I think it’s also good for us futurists to remember that when we talk about a multi-platform world, print is an essential part of the mix, and will continue to be regardless of what newspapers do with the medium. Newspapers are uniquely positioned to shape the future of print, but it’s up to them to take advantage of new opportunities.

      Take a closer look at what’s in your mailbox this afternoon and you’ll begin to see that even your junk mail is becoming more customized and personalized to you and your interests. This is partly fueled by the U.S. Postal Service, which uses a vendor called Click2Mail (http://www.click2mail.com) that should make every newspaper ad department nervous. You can create everything from a postcard to an entire booklet or magazine, buy a mailing list, and send it off to target households.

      Just to underscore this, a U.S. government-funded service is ahead of the newspaper industry in personalized print production and delivery. We have a lot of catching up to do! On the flip side, if the USPS can change with the times, I think there’s hope for newspapers. And I hope that what comes out of Printcasting will help with that.

    • We just posted a video with early Printcasting interface concepts. I invite everyone to check it out, and post your feedback and ideas: http://tinyurl.com/637o22

    • Best of luck with the project Dan. It sounds very promising.

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