Last week, after 6 months of planning and hard work, we officially launched Printcasting, our Knight News Challenge project, in alpha. We’re still busy finishing up the remaining functionality while responding to the excellent feedback and ideas we’re getting from alpha testers. And we are going full speed ahead toward a March 2 launch of Printcasting in Bakersfield, California. Thanks to those of you who have helped us out so far! If you would like to be an alpha tester, there’s always room for one more.

But I have to say that I can’t think of a more ironic time for us to be putting the finishing touches on a new print project.

Based on what you may have read (or even seen on The Daily Show), Newspaper Armageddon is in full swing. In just the last two months, the Tribune Company filed for bankruptcy, the Christian Science Monitor announced plans to end its daily print edition, Scripps announced its intention to sell the Rocky Mountain News, and Detroit’s two newspapers planned to move to three days a week. Next year, blogger Mark Potts predicts more big changes, and I think he’s right.

The immediate temptation is to assume that print is going away completely, but it’s more complex than that. What’s really happening is that economic conditions are accelerating changes in consumer and advertiser behavior. This is forcing companies of all types, including newspapers, to finally make radical changes to stay afloat. And unlike some Eeyores out there, I find this invigorating. This is actually one of the most exciting times to work at a newspaper because it means that the barriers to change just fell by half.

To paraphrase a character in the recent remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, history shows that humanity doesn’t evolve until it’s standing at the brink. Right now that’s exactly where newspapers are. Next year, expect to see smart newspapers moving quickly away from the status quo — huge overhead, one size fits all, poorly targeted ads — and toward a new model that is more efficient, community-driven and personalized than ever before. And expect advertising to be more highly-targeted, measurable, and self-serve.

That’s where Printcasting and similar customized-print initiatives fit in. The Seybold Report recently interviewed me for a story about customized newspapers. In addition to Printcasting, it summarizes other custom print projects. Most notably, in February MediaNews Group plans to launch a customized newspaper in Los Angeles called I-News. What they’re doing is personalization or individuation, which is slightly different from what the democratized publishing focus of Printcasting. But their approach is so similar that I regularly get together with project brainchild Peter Vandevanter to share ideas.

IFRA Magazine also recently printed a four-page spread on Printcasting that puts it in the larger context of custom print content.

Of course, some of you are surely asking, “Why even bother with print? Why not just go completely digital?” 

It comes down to a simple truth that even the most hard-line digerati will admit to. Physical stuff matters when it’s personal to you. Just as one analogy, how do you feel when you get a holiday card in the mail? Do you throw it in the trash, or happily stick it on the fridge or mantle? Even though you may have seen the same exact same photo on Facebook, getting a hardcopy is special as long as the content is targeted and meaningful to you.

This feel-good effect of “stuff” only increases the more local and niche-focused it becomes. I think this is why an advertiser is quicker to buy an ad in a printed niche magazine than an ad on a Web site — ironically, even a Web site with the same brand and content as the magazine.

We experienced this first hand in Bakersfield with Bakotopia, a social networking site I started for the Californian in 2005. Despite high traffic and audience engagement, it wasn’t embraced by advertisers. But in 2007, we created a print magazine that carried the same content as the Web site (sort of a “Best of the Blogs” index).

In that year, Bakotopia more than doubled its number of advertisers, with 78% of them unique — meaning they were new and not just carryovers from The Bakersfield Californian. Young readers also like the Bakotopia print edition, with Scarborough surveys showing a doubling of readership since the print edition started — a fact that is at odds with the assumption that young people don’t like print. We find that they use the print magazine and online social network interchangeably. Why? Because together they form one brand that speaks uniquely to them and their interests, and even includes their content.

There’s a great lesson in there that you won’t see reflected in any punditry-filled story about the supposed “death” of newspapers. Most people aren’t unsubscribing from newspapers because they’re printed, but because the content isn’t as relevant to their unique interests as what they read online. This begs the question of what happens if you make more relevant, local, printed and printable content available. Will we see the opposite effect that we see in newspapers today? Printcasting will test that theory by allowing anyone to be a local niche print publisher.

As my colleague Mary Lou Fulton said recently, consumers have been telling us for years (as evidenced by declining newspaper subscription numbers) that one-size-fits-all isn’t working for them. Now newspapers are finally forced to confront that issue head-on.

That’s a big challenge to be sure, but don’t confuse it with the idea that print as a medium will disappear. As I play with our Printcasting alpha, I can already see a future where print is just one of many valuable expressions of digital content. What one person reads online, another may read as a printout, and yet another reads on an Amazon Kindle or E-Ink Reader. And the producers of the content and publications themselves will run the gamut from newsrooms to local organizations to blogger co-ops. Is that exactly the same as what we’re used to in the daily printed newspaper? Of course not, and that’s what makes it interesting. Local newspapers are now in a position where they have to change or potentially die. Let the evolution begin!