If the entire media industry is a river that is slowly but persistently moving toward the Internet, then one could picture Joshua Karp as a canoeist paddling against the current, trying to take the online realm and solidify it into print. I first heard of his new business venture, The Printed Blog, from a colleague of mine who runs a popular food blog. This person was contacted by someone who works for The Printed Blog and asked whether he would allow his content to be syndicated and printed in a free daily newspaper that would consist entirely of blog posts.
But when the food blogger told me that payment would consist of future shared advertising revenue — how many times have we seen that before? — I classified it with the hundreds of other unserious blog network announcements that populate most social media job boards. Future revenue sharing is often a clear sign that all parties are coming to the table with no investment in the project, giving them little incentive to stick around when the job gets the least bit taxing.
A few weeks later, however, I received word that The Printed Blog had published its inaugural issue and had even managed to earn coverage in the New York Times. I read that Karp, who had recently sold a software company he owned, was himself funding the publication, which was being produced out of free office space with a volunteer staff.
The First Issue
When I spoke to Karp last week on the phone it was not long after a few thousand copies of that first issue had appeared on newsstands in both Chicago — which received the largest print run of 2,000 copies — and San Francisco. He said that when he floated the idea for the project to a few friends last year nearly all of them shot it down. But the idea persisted and in November he hired a graphic designer to cull together some blog posts and create a mock-up of a newspaper.
“So I sent over that information and he put it in, and it started to look like something,” he said. “I was reading it and I said to myself, ‘You know this really might be something that I would read.’ And I took that mock-up and started to show it to people, and I put out a call for some people to help, and it was the Craigslist ad that I posted on January 3 for editors that really sent the ball rolling.”
The Hyper-Local Element
Though the first few issues will be published weekly, Karp’s plan is to transition The Printed Blog into a twice-daily publication that will, in essence, be a new experiment in hyper-local. The idea is to print not one uniform issue but to allow the readers in each of the paper’s distribution neighborhoods to vote online on which blog content they prefer. In theory, the paper would be able to cater to the demographics of each neighborhood and the readership would become the editor (he would then be able to sell cheap, hyper-local advertisements). If this sounds oddly like the nature of social news on the web, that’s because Karp intended it to be that way.
“I think there are principles in the online world that work really well and can be applied to the offline world,” he said. “If we look at a newspaper from the early 20th century compared to one published yesterday they look largely the same. One size fits all, quarter page ads, the half page ads are really expensive. The content is selected by a bunch of editors and journalists that cover beats. Their model hasn’t changed, and my position is that the print newspaper doesn’t need to go away simply because it’s on paper. The problem with the print newspaper business…[is] that nobody has taken a hard look [at] how newspapers are pulled together and laid out and published, and how the power of community tools that we have now can enhance this.”
I spoke to Terry Mertens, who works for a creative advertising agency in Chicago, about his decision to allow his blog’s content to be syndicated by The Printed Blog. His blog, All You Need to Know, began as an e-newsletter in the late 1990s and has served as a creative outlet as he’s worked his way up in the advertising industry. He said that Karp had been one of the original subscribers of his newsletter and had approached him recently with the request to be able to syndicate his content.
“I said that’s great, I’m flattered to be considered for the inaugural issue,” Mertens said. “So I said sure, whatever you want, you can go through my archives or you can pick something new, and that’s kind of how that worked.”
When considering most of the blogosphere, it struck me that a high ratio of the blog posts that are published every day would not transfer well off the web; after all, how often do bloggers include non-contextual links, embedded video or pithy one-liners? And linking is the currency of blogs, something that is largely eliminated when you put blogs on paper.
“Honestly I think it depends on the blog,” Mertens said. “Whenever I post something online, I have kind of a print mentality, like this is something I’d like to have published in a book some day. So I get it right. They’re short essays. A lot of times they’re one page long, or two pages, or three, whatever that length would be, but I write it as though it’s a finished form, and it’s not just this stream of consciousness.”
Is It Financially Stable?
I asked Karp about the funding — most notably, who would cover the printing cost — and he admitted that the publication’s future likely hinged on whether he could find venture capitalist funding over the next few weeks. He said that he’s committed his own money to the first three issues, but if The Printed Blog is ever to become a daily publication, distributed in several major cities, it will need much more financial backing.
And when I pointed out that this wasn’t exactly the best time to enter the print world, he said that there still is a place for print, that with paper you “shuffle the pages on the train, you get ink on your fingers, you spread the pages out on a kitchen table on weekends, and you read them and it’s a different kind of thing.” In short, print provides a different experience than online, one that many people still want. To him, this print-to-online argument is simply overgeneralizing.
“I think when people say we need to go online and the Internet is cool and that’s where people are going, I think that’s an oversimplification, I think it’s a little bit of a — it’s a little lazy. There are techniques that I can demonstrate that really can work offline.”
We will see. What do you think about The Printed Blog? Would you read it? If you are a blogger, would you syndicate your content in this publication? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate editor for MediaShift. He currently works as an online analyst for New Media Strategies. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.