In the 13 years I've been involved in online media, I've learned firsthand how dangerous it can be to be lead by ideology. Ideals are great, but if you become too invested in them they can blind you to the real needs of the customers you're trying to serve. And when it comes to innovation - which is part of the brand of The Bakersfield Californian newspaper where I work - the temptation to drink your own Kool-Aid is huge.
So it's not without some humility that I come to you today with a confession. My name is Dan Pacheco, and I am a print-is-dead-a-holic.
For the last four years, I've unintentionally helped fuel the fire behind the idea that the best way to grow online audience and revenue is with pure-play online products. We built our own social networking platform called Bakomatic, and have used it to create a network of 11 audience-focused participatory sites. In a few short years, we've managed to get 10% of the population of Bakersfield to create profiles, and an even larger number to regularly post their own stories, blogs and comments.
But something funny happened on the way to the online forum, and it directly ties to our Printcasting project, one of the 2007/2008 winners of the Knight News Challenge. Despite all of my futuristic ramblings about the virtues of social networks, our niche print products are also doing great, and in some cases better than their associated Web sites. And when it comes to money, the growth in print advertising revenue continues to exceed that of the Web sites.
Let me state this another way. The youth-oriented Bakotopia.com that I started was a pure online-only brand for its first two years, and as a Web site it never made a significant amount of revenue from local advertising. A year ago we debuted Bakotopia magazine - which is like a "best of" rollup of the same content online - and the same businesses who had a million questions about online ads instantly wanted to buy ads.
Then, to my shock, the same people who contributed to Bakotopia were rushing out to get the latest Bakotopia magazine, even when they'd read the same content on their computer screens. We can tell that when a new print edition comes out, they start submitting content online again in the hopes that it will be selected for the next print magazine. This digital-print hybrid behavior is true across all 6 demographic groups we've tried it with, including youth, who are supposedly not interested in print.
Crazy, huh? But that's your ideology speaking. It should have been obvious that for a community of local people and businesses, a physical presence like a print product matters. A Bakotopian who frequents local clubs and art events can't help but pick up Bakotopia magazine to see who's in it. Businesses know this, and they see it happening, so they pay for the ads.
Another ideological road block is that this seems to be at odds with what you read about declining newspaper circulation. The truth is that there are two separate trends when it comes to printed publications. While an increasing number of people are moving away from the one-size-fits-all "daily brick" that is the traditional newspaper, they are moving toward multiple information products with tighter niche focus. A move toward niche interests is not the same as a move away from an entire platform. (A tangent to this is that the daily newspaper is slowly but surely becoming its own niche product, but that's another discussion).
Once we realized what was happening, we started thinking about how we could really tap into this new behavior. Most of our local media growth was in niche social networks with print products that contained targeted advertising, but we'd need hundreds or even thousands to make this strategy worthwhile. We could never hire enough editors, publication designers and salespeople to do anything on that scale, and wouldn't want to.
The solution we came up with was to make print part of the fabric of our local Web 2.0 universe and turn print publishing over to the readers themselves. I won't get into all the details here, but the basic idea behind Printcasting is that anyone can publish a printable newspaper, magazine or newsletter. You won't need any money, fancy software, design skills or even content to do it. The tools we'll build will let you choose content feeds from our social networking sites - and any blog with an RSS feed - and flow them into a professionally designed PDF document. Others can read and even subscribe to receive them online.
We'll track demographics of readers and allow local businesses to target their ads to specific audiences. And we'll track downloads too, so that if we see a citizen publication that's regularly in the top 10 we may print 1,000 copies of it and distribute them to local people who match the target. Why would we do that? Because we will also run our own ads in those publications (sort of an American Idol approach to publishing).
Finally, anyone who contributed to the financial success of a publication will get a cut of the revenue - from the content providers to the publishers to the network that made it possible.
It's a tall order, but we have time on our side. Thanks to the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, we have 9 months to build the product, and another 9 months to deploy it in Bakersfield and make it better. In the last 6 months of our grant, we will extend Printcasting to organizations in five to-be-determined cities, partnering with companies such as newspapers or print shops who want to get a local foothold on this new opportunity. At the end of the project, all of the code will be made available under an open source license.
Sound interesting? You can follow our progress and share ideas and feedback on a social network we've set up at http://www.printcasting.com. And of course, I'll be posting updates here for the next two years. In either case, we'd love to get your ideas and feedback. And if you're a PHP programmer with some contracting time, we should definitely talk!