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. 

Comments

Quote: “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.”

Doesn’t this become reverse shovelware? According to this model, the people who are really interested in the content have already read it online, in order to rank it. Why would they want to read it again in printed form?

The idea is noble, but it merely creates a new editorial team, none of whom would be potential readers of the print product.


@cyrbeth:

Good questions. Of course, we won’t know until they start trying the system. But it’s worth noting at the start that for many newspapers, there is only a small overlap between those who read the print version, and those who read online.

So I think the real dynamic to watch is whether the interests of the online community surface stuff that when pulled into print, creates a product that proves compelling for folks who want an analog version. This second group most likely won’t have read this stuff.

It does create a new editorial team, as you note. But one that is unpaid, keeping costs minimal. I suspect as it develops, there may arise a need for some human input, someone to curate a bit. We’ll have to see how that develops over time.


The Printed Blog would find a better level of success and respect if it consistently had Chicago-centric content in its Chicago edition. That element has been lacking in the editions I’ve read.


@parkeral27

More local content is the goal. I think mostly what you’re seeing at the moment are prototypes to work through the process. As I understand it, in the long run, they don’t want just more City-wide focus, but neighborhood focus.


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