Tonight is literally the end of 2008 and the beginning of 2009, so first I want to say Happy New Year to all of you. We’ve learned a lot since winning a Knight News Challenge grant 9 months ago, and are extremely grateful to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for making it possible for us and so many others to continue to experiment at a time when so many companies are eliminating into their research & development budgets.

Even though it’s the holidays, the Printcasting team is not slowing down. All we can think about is March 2, 2009 when we launch live in Bakersfield. We’re busy implementing changes to the Printcasting publisher experience after some great feedback from alpha testers. And I’m happy to still have great things to talk about and show off.

Our next test will focus on local self-serve advertising. But don’t just take my word for it — see it in action in this video preview:

Why are we doing this? It’s about meeting local businesses where they’re at. If we can do that more effectively, we will secure a much-needed revenue source that will continue to fund quality local journalism.

But making local self-serve advertising work with small local businesses is no cakewalk, and it will take us time to perfect it.

I’ve written in the past about our goal to make it as easy for small local businesses to create print ads as it is to write an e-mail or post a blog entry. Most of these long-tail advertisers have small ad budgets of $10,000 – $30,000 per year, and that means general-interest newspapers (or general-interest anything) often aren’t a good fit for them. While some may experiment with pure-online ads such as Google AdWords, the reality is that placing an ad in a global search engine isn’t the best way to bring local consumers into your store. Contrary to what you may hear, locally-focused businesses depend on local consumers, not eBayers all over the planet. If they didn’t, would they have brick-and-mortar storefronts to begin with?

In Bakersfield, we have found that smaller niche print publications that are fueled by online user-contributed content are a great way to serve these types of businesses. But because they have less to spend, it’s hard to generate enough revenue by relying on salespeople alone. Thankfully, self-serve tools make it possible for the salesperson to do more than simply sell an ad. The salesperson can sell an ad-creation service that is self-sustaining — teaching the local business to fish and giving them a new fishing pole, if you will.

I don’t mean to bore those of you who come here to read about journalism. Hey — I’m a trained, degree-holding journalist myself. But I’ve come to learn over the years that local journalism is possible today because it serves the interests of local people that advertisers call consumers. And local journalism is paid for by also serving the needs of local businesses who rely on those consumers.

I know that there are other models people are experimenting with, such as David Cohn’s incredible community funded reporting project, and that’s great. But I also know that local advertising is what pays for most local journalism today.

I have also been around the block long enough to know that there is not ever just one smoking-gun solution to everything. Funding the journalism of tomorrow will require a mix of creative new solutions. Since the need for local businesses to advertise locally will never go away, it would be foolish for local media companies not to apply the same kind of revolutionary thinking to advertising as they have to consumer-focused things like user-contributed content. (And isn’t self-serve advertising just another type of user-contributed content anyway?)

Thus, Printcasting’s advertising tool is not just a way to make money, although that is an obvious benefit. It’s also a way to begin to have a more meaningful conversation with the small businesses that newspapers aren’t reaching today, but are key to their future. I’ll go as far to say that the future of small mom-and-pop shops and locally focused media companies are so interlinked that one cannot exist without the other.