So you thought print was dead? No one could blame you; with newspapers going out of business or switching to all-digital formats, it seems a safe assumption to make. Dan Pacheco, senior manager of digital products at The Bakersfield Californian, does not agree-and he's putting his ideas to the test with the help of an $837,000 grant from the Knight Foundation (www.knightfoundation.org). "We want to try something totally new and different. Let's take citizen journalism to the next step," Pacheco says.
Pacheco won the grant through the foundation's News Challenge for an idea he's calling Printcasting-a platform that allows anyone to create a printable magazine or newsletter that's supported with local advertising. The whole thing got its start at The Californian after the paper started exploring the world of social networks to attract new audiences. Pacheco helped create Bakotopia.com, which quickly became popular among users but not so much among advertisers. Local businesses kept asking for a print product, so the Bakotopia.com team obliged. They culled the best user-created content from the site and turned it into a magazine-and advertisers flocked to the publication. Pacheco realized they were on to something, and he pitched the idea to the Knight Foundation's New Challenge to great success.
After 9 months in development, Printcasting (www.printcasting.com) went live in March 2009. The idea had been to start slowly in Bakersfield and branch out into five different cities by the end of the year working with partners in each city. Things exploded earlier than expected, however, and on June 25, Printcasting announced its first major partnership with the MediaNews Group (www.medianewsgroup.com) of Denver.
Print isn't dead, in Pacheco's estimation. Users simply don't have use for the monolith that is the daily newspaper; rather, they choose to get their information from a variety of sources, focusing in on what interests them most during their increasingly limited free time. Pacheco is betting that local and niche publications still hold sway in print. "The smaller [the town] gets the more the physical, the terrestrial, print matters," he says.
Printcasting users will typically fall into one of three categories: contributor, publisher, or advertiser. Contributors can register the RSS feeds for their blogs or websites at Printcasting.com, which basically means they're agreeing to allow anyone in the Printcasting community to use their content. In exchange, they receive a portion of any ad revenue that particular Printcast brings in. The publishers are the ones creating the magazine by selecting a layout and a topic and then selecting the RSS feeds to provide the content. Pacheco likens the process of putting together a list of RSS feeds to that of an editor putting together a "stable of freelance writers." Advertisers can pay a flat fee-usually about $10-to be in a Printcast that they think suits them.
Peter Vandevanter, VP of targeted media products for MediaNews Group, spends his days coming up with and executing new niche print publications. So when he heard about Printcasting, it seemed like a pretty obvious fit. "My real responsibility is creating publications that are separate from the newspapers that have targeted audiences so that you can sell advertising at higher rates. ... Printcast is right in line with everything else I do but also a wonderful extension," he says. For his first Printcast, Vandevanter opted for a real estate publication.
Vandevanter is taking articles from Media News Groups' various publications and making a small newsletter. A local realtor is taking up all the ad-space-about seven spots-and the newsletter is being delivered directly to about 25 personal printers via firmware. In other words, 25 people will be sitting at home on Friday when a newsletter filled with extremely targeted content prints itself out on their printers.
By keeping production, distribution, and advertising rates low, Pacheco thinks Printcasters will be able to reach the fabled "long tail" of advertisers who otherwise can't afford to market themselves in the big newspapers and don't think the web is for them. Vandevanter has a slightly different view of how targeted publications work. He says, "Target your advertisers, make smaller and smaller distributed publications, and charge more and more for them." Pacheco and Vandevanter agree on one thing though: These kinds of publications can help support the in-depth reporting so important to a free press and democracy.
Pacheco describes the advertising model on his blog for PBS.org: "Starting now, all ads placed with the Printcasting self-serve advertising tool cost $10, an amount that publishers can mark up per publication. In addition, 60% of every ad dollar is shared with publishers through their Paypal accounts, and 30% of every dollar is set aside to share with participating content providers in the future in proportion to how often their content has been used in Printcasts." The remaining 10% is set aside for networks costs, but the terms of the agreement with the Knight Foundation stipulate that Pacheco and the Printcasting team have to put the money back into the project or keep it until the grant period ends and discuss with the Foundation the best way to spend that money.
Vandevanter compares this sort of niche publishing to oil drilling: "Up until now we could only go down to 10,000'. ... The magazines we currently do are all in the 10,000-30,000 circulation level. ... With these new publications you can easily devise publications that serve 50 or 100 people."
Pacheco still has faith in the world of print, so he is starting to think toward the future. When the grant period is up, Printcasting will need a way to keep the proverbial doors open. Still, it's the success of the Printcasters themselves that he really hopes for. "I would love it if there was some blogger out there who could become a publisher. ... Be able to pay for themselves and maybe another person ... and, most importantly, the costs of journalism."