I’ve spent the last couple weeks with my head in the wires, so to speak, thinking about things like technology platforms. And lest you hear that term and begin to tune out, stay with me. The reality is that in today’s media, all of us are need to be a little semi-geek (to quote Amy Gahran from last year’s News Challenge contest).
First, I have a significant decision to report. After a lot of thought, discussion and hand-wringing, we’ve finally settled on a technology platform for Printcasting: Drupal. And we have contracting needs galore. If you’re a Drupal developer (or know one) and want to work on a fun project that will truly transform the printed word, contact me.
It’s been interesting to see how some people are reacting to this news. My favorite is from Steve Yelvington, who proudly declared that I’m finally “drinking the Kool-Aid,” given my history of championing proprietary systems like The Bakersfield Californian’s Bakomatic social media platform. The truth is that I’m technology agnostic and always believe in putting consumer needs first, independent of technology, but I’m glad that Steve and others are so excited. Because the truth is, so am I!
Why did we choose Drupal? It goes back to that old Zen saying: “If a tree falls in the forest and there’s nobody around to hear it, does it make any sound?” That will never be a problem with the Drupal community, which had at least 900 developers contribute to the core codebase of version 6, according to founder Dries Buytaert.
It’s clear to us that the Knight News Challenge is not about technology for technology’s sake, or even technology for the sake of just one geographical community — although that’s where it starts. It’s also about finding new models and perpetuating them with movements. Given the large and growing number of newspapers on Drupal, we know that providing modules for instant-print capability will have a lasting impact in the newspaper industry.
And where newspapers can’t or won’t embrace change, thousands of other community-oriented Drupal sites are already filling in the gaps. But after MediaNews Group’s Peter Vandevanter’s individuated news conference last week, there’s a slim hope that more newspapers will start to seize the obvious opportunities in front of them.
This was the first conference I’ve attended where editors who dream of the mass-customized newspaper got together with printer companies who not only can do this, but are already doing it with direct mail.
Longtime digital media consultant Vin Crosbie opened the conference with an impassioned speech about why he’d been waiting 10 years for this conference to happen. You can read more of Crosbie’s comments on his blog, or in quotes from the column of Rocky Mountain News president and publisher John Temple, who was also in attendance.
Crosbie’s personal question pretty much said it all. Why couldn’t the New York Times, which he has subscribed to for years, deliver him and thousands of other New Yorkers the world soccer news that he knows they have in their wires? The answer: because newspapers have never really evolved past the Gutenberg Press, which excels at printing the same thing over and over again. Since only a few hundred thousand of the 17 million people in New York City metro area want world soccer news, the Times has to leave it out of the one daily product they must send to everyone.
World soccer is one of the larger niches in New York, with a fan base that’s larger than some European towns whose newspapers devote whole sections to the sport. Think about all the other interests out there and you start to see tons of opportunities for targeted content and advertising delivery, both in print and online.
But sadly, most newspapers also miss the online opportunity. “Even worse, most newspapers today shovel those same analog practices
online — even though the digital technologies of online don’t have the limitations of analog printing presses,” Crosbie said.
The good news is that there are more and more initiatives out there like Printcasting that are designed to fix this problem. One that I think shows promise is Presto, a stand-alone printer with a $9.99 monthly plan that delivers personal e-mail, photos and news in print over a phone line. Presto started out focusing on the elderly, but it plans to expand into the mainstream.
Another is DailyMe, which lets you pick story categories — and now even changes your story mix based on your browsing habits — and deliver them via e-mail, printable PDF or cell phone. I found it interesting that DailyMe’s CEO Eduardo Hauser said the company is in discussions with printer companies about providing free ad-supported printers to subscribers who prefer print delivery. There’s a lot of buzz about custom presses from Kodak and Oce, but personally I think the home printer is best set up to deliver personalized printed news to the home.
The bad news: aside from MediaNews Group and the Rocky Mountain News (which are housed in the same building where we met), there wasn’t one executive present from a large newspaper chain. And even worse: we were told that an executive from another large chain was supposedly registered, but was laid off the week before and therefore didn’t attend.
I don’t know how to get the big ships that are media chains to reverse course before they hit the ice bergs all around them, and I applaud those of you who work at such companies for continuing to push from below. I hope you are successful. But I do know this. Regardless of what happens to large media companies, individual people with passionate interests will always find ways to meet, connect and share with other like-minded people. Locally distributed print material is still the best way to do that at a local level, and it’s a need we can fill. We just need to connect the last few dots.