News Leadership 3.0

March 26, 2009

From blog to print

Chris O’Brien: While mass newspapers struggle, entrepreneurs are developing new forms for print news print news

Discussion of the future of print news focuses on the difficulties that established print news organizations are experiencing. But an either-or framing—print is dead or print will live—often misses small experiments with print media that are worth noting. So I asked Chris O’Brien, business columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, for an update working efforts to find a place for print in a digital world.

By Chris O’Brien

For all the talk about whether newspapers should kill the print edition, there are plenty of entrepreneurs headed in the opposite direction. They come from digital backgrounds, but believe as passionately in the future of print as the most ink-stained wretch running a newsroom these days.

Count Josh Karp in this counter intuitive crowd.

“Our thing is the printed word,” Karp said. “There is tremendous power in the printed word. I’m a big believer in the physical commodity.”

The Chicago-based entrepreneur has catapulted from obscurity to buzz worthy shortly after word leaked earlier this year of his plans to launch The Printed Blog. As the name implies, Karp says the company will pull together content from various blogs and Web sites and publish it onto good old-fashioned dead tree products. At first blush, the effort seems to mirror a number of other Web-to-print models (some of which are listed below).

But Karp’s plan is different, complex, and ambitious. He’s attempting not only to reinvent the workflow of a traditional newspaper, but also the manufacturing and distribution components.

I’d been eager to meet Karp, because I count myself among those who believe that print has its place in the future newsroom. Print needs to be reinvented. And it should take its place as just one of many equals in a multi-platform newsroom. But calls for killing the print version are misguided. It’s bad for business, and it’s bad for the thousands of people in each community who still prefer to get their news and information in print.

That said, I think printed news is ripe for innovation. And Karp thinks so, too.

I met Karp and his team on a sunny morning at the famed Buck’s Diner in Woodside, a legendary spot where entrepreneurs and venture capitalists in Silicon Valley have been coming to strike deals for decades. Karp had flown in for a week from Chicago to meet with a series of angel investors and venture capitalists. Karp says he’s got some tentative agreements, but won’t say with who or how much until any deal is signed.

Karp is here with two members of his team: Jenn Beese, the social media manager, and Michelle Doellman, assistant publisher. They’re part of a dozen or so folks currently working on the project, which has been self-funded to this point by Karp. For the most part, all these folks are donating their time, and Karp is hoping that any initial funding will allow him to start paying some salaries.

One of my first surprises came when Karp eagerly handed me some copies of The Printed Blog. These are not slapped-together print-outs from someone’s home printer. They were printed on high-quality, glossy, magazine style paper. It looks and feels slick and professional, thanks to the work of some design interns.

For now, these prototypes are being printed once a week, mostly for demonstration purposes, and being distributed in just a handful of cities. The team keeps a Google Reader full of blogs submitted by writers how have agreed to have their content re-printed. An editorial team reads them and selects the best, solicits photos, lays out the pages, publishes it, and then hands it out in various locations

His goal is print 2,000 versions of The Printed Blog. Every day.

How is he going to achieve that scale?

“It’s about creating a platform for a new, newspaper production,” Karp said.

To understand how Karp hopes to get there, let’s break it down into three pieces:

1. Content: Anyone can submit content from a Web site or blog. The editorial team will give way to an online system to allow a community to vote or rank the content. The top-ranked content will be pulled into an automated layout and production system.

2. Advertising: Local businesses and services will be able to buy ads that will be paired with related content by content and location and the printed versions aimed at their communities. Karp says he has fewer qualms about pairing a printed ad to a story based on content than a traditional newspaper might. Creators of content will get a percentage of the revenue generated by any ads that run on the same page as their work.

3. Production and Distribution: Karp’s plan is to create a chain of Printed Blog production franchises. In this case, the franchise owner would be both the new printing press and the new newspaper delivery boy. A Printed Blog franchisee could be just someone working out of their home, or in an office. They would be provided with the printer and paper. Karp is convinced that he can get both at reasonable prices in bulk over the long-term to make the plan cost effective. The franchisee would get to keep some percentage of the revenue generated by ads that run in their edition.

Once in place, a franchisee would be responsible each day for printing the content that is promoted by the community. The franchisee would then distribute it by taking it to various public places around town.

This franchise part seems to be the trickiest, and the key to making this work. The more franchisees sign up, the more targeted the content can be and the more likely bloggers might see some money. 

Pulling all of this off will be the biggest professional challenge yet for Karp.

Over the years, Karp has held various programming and consulting jobs. More recently, he started his own company, Free Rain Systems, which built software to help companies manage their logistics. About two years ago, he sold it for a modest sum. The experience left him wanting more, and he began kicking around various ideas.

He thought about The Printed Blog a year ago, but friends gave it a thumbs down. By November, though, he couldn’t get it out of his head. So he committed some of his own money, and began fleshing out the concept and technology. Just a few weeks later, word of the project hit the Web, and Karp found himself being interviewed by such outfits as the New York Times, though he had no product to show yet.

So what exactly did Karp see as the opportunity?

“I’d thought a lot about business models,” Karp said. “Were there principals I could take from the online world and bring them to the newspaper world?”

In this case, he wondered if print could be produced real-time, and be made into a rich, interactive experience.

Who knows whether this will work? But I do like the underlying philosophy of providing some choice to the community. Digital technologies are just beginning to deliver on the promise of mass customization. You can see glimpses of it in start-ups like The Printed Blog. 

As for the newspaper industry, it’s way past time to deliver what print readers have been saying they have wanted for years. They want choice in how they receive the newspaper. They want customization, even personalization. Right now, most papers are still stuck delivering one product, at one time, in one form. That product doesn’t fit into the lives of most people anymore.

Whether The Printed Blog proves to be the right model for solving this, time will tell. But hopefully it will begin to open up the possibilities and change the tone of discussion around print from “kill” to “rethink.”

Here are a few of other in intriguing Web-to-print efforts that will be worth following over the next few months:

DailyMe: This Hollywood, Fl.-based start-up aggregates content from across the Web based on your interests and can be set to automatically print your personalized news choices to your printer any time of day.

Printcasting: This is the “people-powered magazines” initiative at the Bakersfield Californian that was funded by a News Challenge Grant from the Knight Foundation. The team just recently launched Printcasting this month.

Time Magazine: According to a recent AP story: “Time Inc. is experimenting with a customized magazine that combines reader-selected sections from eight publications as it tries to mimic in printed form the personalized news feeds that have become popular on the Internet. 

I-News: Under development by MediaNews (disclosure: I work as a columnist at the San Jose Mercury News, whose parent company is MediaNews), the company is about to trial the Individuated Newspaper. According to Editorsweblog.org:

“The “I-News” project will be a targeted and customized online newspaper that allows the reader to select the types of news they want delivered…I-News will be delivered to subscribers via their computers, cell phones, or a special stand-alone printer plugged into a phone line. The printing manufacturer and the publisher participating in the (MediaNews) experiment may subsidize ink and paper prices to offset users’ costs.”

Offbeat Guides: This San Francisco-based start-up allows you to create personalized travel guides. Go through the site to select the place and time you’ll be visiting, and it will create a customized, bound travel guide that contains the general information about a destination but also specific information about things happenings on the days and times you’re visiting. 

January 05, 2009

A new print team: Smaller in size, tighter in focus

Ideas for ‘09: Newsrooms must “wind down” on print while still publishing a newspaper

Happy New Year! I want to start this year with a few ideas for change in traditional print newsrooms that are moving online.
Idea #1: Create a very small print team that is entirely focused on print production and is charged with taking most of the print content from what the newsroom (and users) have produced for the Web.
In planning this team, push as hard as possible downward on the size of the team and upward on expectations from how much of the newspaper it can fill with Web-first content.
Let’s start with the size. A typical newsroom process might define what the product will look like and then determine how many people it will take to produce it. Instead, I suggest newsroom leaders set a tight limit on the number of people who will produce the print product and explore what that number of people might produce.
Perhaps you could start the discussion by exploring what a newspaper would like like if only 10 percent of the newsroom staff was on the print production team.  You likely will end up with a higher number, but you can use the process to learn what is doable with less and to identify what you can give up in print and what you must have.
Of course, the initial newsroom response to this idea will be, “That’s impossible.” Turn that around with “Let’s just see what is possible and move on from there.” You can always raise the number.
Perhaps more important than the exact number, is the role of the new team. The team must understand what loyal newspaper readers are looking for in print and it must learn how to assess published Web content, decide what’s most appropriate for newspaper readers and repackage it for print. To a great extent, the team also must learn to produce a good newspaper without the ability to ask the news gatherers for a lot of print-specific content.
Again, “Impossible,” you say.  Probably not entirely possible. But ask an open-minded staff member or a small group of them to review online offerings for a couple of weeks and give you a report on what would most readily translate into print, what it would take to repackage it and what might end up missing from the print product that only news gathering staff could provide.
It’s important as this exercise unfolds to be as specific as possible about what you are willing to give up and what you are not. It also is crucial that whatever system you create protects the news gathering staff from the potentially endless demands of print. (See “Beware the sucking sound of the print newspaper.”)
A couple of newsrooms have reorganized along these lines with some success (albeit with a larger number of people than my hypothetical 10 percent).
The Orange County Register initially devoted about a third of its staff to print production while the news gathering operation reported to online. That print desk put out the daily newspaper in addition to about two dozen community news weeklies.
Separating print production from news gathering has helped the Register become an online first newsroom, says Editor Ken Brusic. The idea was to “take all the content producers—reporters, photographers, graphic artists—and have them at least be thinking about producing information for a Web-first environment.”
At the same time, Brusic says the print and online teams are encouraged to collaborate, and better planning (The Register uses a tool called NewsGate) enables the print team to see what is being produced online and to request print-specific material early in the process.
Brusic said the size of the Register’s print team has been reduced with recent layoffs. But he said 10 percent seemed too low, especially at the outset. “I’d suggest 20 or 25 percent to start, with the goal of reducing that number over time,’’ Brusic said in an e-mail.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, with a 300-person newsroom, also moved to separate production from newsgathering although news gatherers do produce a lot of content specifically for print. Atlanta now has three teams - News & Information (the news gatherers), Online, and Print.  The print team numbers just under 25 percent of the total staff. Online is 20 percent. The largest team is News & Information, with 55 percent.
Two other teams—online and print—are responsible for deciding what content will work in their specific medium and for getting that content to their specific audiences in forms that best suit the audience. It’s not an assembly line process like many newsrooms where the presentation and production folks come in at the end and often can barely put a stamp on finished packages. Instead, the News and Information team pitches story ideas and each production team can decide whether to ask that the idea be developed (or take a pass on the story) and what elements may best suit its platform.
Robin Henry, Managing Editor/Online at the AJC, says the system requires give and take. “If we say no (to a story), we have to have a conversation about why aren’t we interested. We’re all supposed to be on the same page on the reader so we start there. That’s our common ground. Why are we doing this story and how does this benefit the reader? If they can convince us, maybe we’re wrong.”

Print newspapers will publish for some time in many U.S. communities. Mark Hamilton describes this aptly in “Winding down the print edition.”

“What’s happening now is essentially the winding-down of the print edition. No one known how long this phase is going to last—whether it’s two years, five, 10 or more (unlikely)—either on an individual title or industry-wide basis.

“During the end game, surviving newspapers are going to continue to shrink as they play in a much larger pool of competitors for advertising and attention. Bottom-line pressure, whether from shareholders, independent owners or basis economics, will not go away. Some of that will be gained back (or held) with a vibrant web presence.

“The goal during the end game will be to continually tweak the print product to milk as much revenue/attention from it as possible (note: the attention part of that is as least as important as the revenue), while moving aggressively onto the web.”

One future scenario for news separates key functions of news organizations into distinct businesses—some gather content while others package it for specific audiences on different distribution platforms. Everyone shares in the revenue, but each organization has a specialty and a focus and, as a result, is more able to keep pace with rapid and continuous changes in the information marketplace.

This division of expertise relies on a different cultural model as well: Experts on the consumers of news make key decisions about how and where users are most likely to engage with the content. That represents a significant shift from traditional practice, in which the content creators (journalists) have called the shots.

Newsrooms can make that organizational shift regardless of the state of their business. And as 2009 opens, it is high time for newsrooms to move deliberately along that road. They may not be shutting down their print operations, but reorganizing the staff to de-emphasize print in newsroom culture and in staff resources will ease the transition to success online.

Would a model like one of these work for your newsroom? What techniques are you using to “wind down” on print? Please add your ideas to the comments.

Related posts:
What does ‘online first’ mean in your newsroom?
“The newspaper is a means to transition. But it’s no longer an end unto itself”

August 08, 2008

Don’t forget the audience

Debate over Inquirer’s new print policy
shouldn’t overlook readers and users
How do you balance online and print?

Lots of noise today on journalism blogs about The Philadelphia Inquirer‘s plans to go print-first with more of its enterprise reporting. News will still go online right away.

Here’s the internal memo, posted yesterday on Romenesko. Critics (Jarvis, Outing) say this is a move backwards. Others (Owens) take a more reasoned approach, saying any news organization needs to consider how to best differentiate its online and print products.

Of course, newspapers for too long simply dumped print content online.This discussion of the roles of print and online is an important one, and I hope the debate about Philly moves away from an either-or, good-bad frame of some of the early criticism and toward two related ideas that will be more helpful to news organizations.

One, as Howard Owens notes, is differentiation:

” ... why is it wrong now to say ‘let print be print’ and ‘let online be online.’

Your online product should focus on:

  * Frequency. Plenty of updates. Web-first publishing. Tell me what is happening in my town right now.
  * When there is a big story, hammer it. Own it. Frequent updates, a flood of information, video, blogs, forums, public documents, databases, maps, graphics.

On a pure news basis, those two approaches are proven audience growth winners.

—-

“There are a ton of other web-centric things newspapers can and should do with their web sites, but none of them include publishing first online enterprise and investigative pieces, columnist, lengthy features, trend stories and even analysis pieces.”

Building on the idea of product differentiation, I want to underscore a second critical factor—how people use media. A lot of news organizations are still thinking about content and presentation in terms of medium and technology (or worse, in terms of tradition and comfort level) when they should be thinking about content and presentation in terms of audiences—in which I include people who read of print newspapers and people who read their news online or go there for more interactive experiences.

For an example of this, look no farther than your spiffy new iPhone and then check out what content your organization is providing to users there or on other mobile devices. The news industry’s capacity to deliver news, information and interactivity to mobile seriously lags audience adoption and use.

A number of newsrooms are pushing the audience front and center in the way they organize themselves and think about content. Examples:

- The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and ajc.com. This newsroom has “pitchers,” the news and information gatherers who come up with story ideas and execute them. Then there are the “catchers,” separate online and print teams that get involved early in the story planning and tell the gatherers how they want the stories developed and packaged for the audiences who use their platforms.

- The Tampa Tribune and tbo.com. This newsroom has recently reorganized and downsized and, among other things, created several “audience editor” positions. These editors are “the advocates for the audience in daily and longer-term story choices and story development,” according to Executive Editor Janet Coats. As I wrote earlier, the audience traditionally is not at the table when editors decide what to cover and who to cover it for different platforms. I think this plan may enable Tampa to significantly better its content across platforms. See this post for more detail.

Many of the editors I’ve been talking to of late put achieving an online-print balance high on their lists of challenges. This is partly because they are forced to do more with fewer people. They know that means they need to be ever more strategic in thinking about staffing and content. If you’re one of those editors, I’d like to hear more about your efforts to prioritize based on what you know about your audiences and how they use your different platforms. Please add your thoughts in the comments.

UPDATE: Ryan Sholin posts this interview with Philly.com online editor Chris Krewson, who talks, among other things, about audience considerations:

“Since I arrived here in November ‘07, we’ve tried hard to figure out how people actually use the paper and the Web site. obviously, that’s for different reasons. And we’re just trying to make sure we’re careful about what we do—roughly 75 percent of that will not change.

“The other 25 will be us taking more care, making case-by-case decisions, armed by whatever information we have about how people use our products.”

 

 

July 22, 2008

Defining “niche”

Spokane editors work to define
new place for print newspaper

One topic for last week’s KDMC leadership conference was the increasingly difficult dance of keeping the print newspaper robust and moving aggressively online. One strategy may be to re-define the print newspaper as a “niche” product for a specific audience. Different newsrooms and markets will have different ways of defining this.

Here’s a first run at the definition from Carla Savalli, an editor at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, who participated in the leadership conference:

A niche newspaper is more narrowly focused than the mass market daily.

It may be smaller in size and news hole, and it may even be less frequent than seven days a week. It very likely will be sold for a premium price, almost certainly more than $1 per day.

But it’s most distinctive characteristic will be its content, which will be targeted to the readers who want it and who will be willing to pay for it. Rather than a range of content, a niche paper will focus on so-called franchise topics that can only be produced locally by a skilled staff of journalists. For example: Municipal and state government; schools and education; watchdog reporting; local sports; arts and entertainment.

The niche newspaper will be edited to be explanatory and analytical. Readers will come to the newspaper to learn not ‘what happened,’ but ‘why it happened.’ Its second-day, in-depth nature will be a complement to the 24/7 nature of the newsroom’s online and mobile operations.

On the business side, a niche newspaper will be but one of several platforms that comprise a media portfolio. More important than method of delivery will be the news organization’s brand. In our case, The Spokesman-Review will increasingly become an news and information company whose brand is considered to be smart, timely, relevant and unflinching local journalism. That journalism will be published across multiple platforms, known and to be developed, rather than on any single flagship publication.

Production will be right-sized for the product. The full-scale production apparatus necessary to produce a mass-market daily newspaper is not necessary for a niche product. Resources across the room, then, will be reapportioned according to the needs of the platform.

The overriding goal is to provide news and information to people whenever and however they want it, recognizing that each platform has unique story-telling characteristics which editors and reporters must learn to customize.

Spokane Editor Steven A. Smith reports on his blog that the discussion of the newspaper as niche is a challenging one for his newsroom, as I suspect it will be in many others. Read more of Smith’s post here.

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Exploring innovation, transformation and leadership in a new ecosystem of news, by journalist and change advocate Michele McLellan.

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