Ever since the Knight News Challenge was first announced in 2006, I’ve been fascinated and inspired by its open nature. While the primary goal of the contest is to fund great ideas for new local news and information projects, it has a larger mission. It also requires those projects to eventually be released under open source licenses. To me this has always meant that News Challenge projects have a responsibility to a larger community of people who will one day repeat our successes in their communities.

That’s why one of the first things I did for our News Challenge project, Printcasting, was to start a blog and online community using the Ning network. We’ve used that community to solicit feedback about specific approaches, to coordinate alpha testing and provide periodic updates on our progress. But underneath all of that, there’s something more powerful happening. A national and, increasingly, global movement is forming of people who want to make print relevant in the digital age. We will maintain this site after our launch under a new community.printcasting.com subdomain.

With hardly any promotion and a few Twitter posts, Printcasting.com now has 191 registered members [link] of all ages. The youngest is a tender 20, and the oldest a sprightly 77 (the average age is 39). The bulk (65%) are from the United States, with the largest concentrations being on the East Coast (22%), Midwest (20%) and Californian (18%). They work in a variety of professions, including art, engineering, printing, publishing, new media, law and small business. After Printcasting launches in March and, later, rolls out elsewhere, it will be interesting to see if that mix is repeated at a local level.

One thing I didn’t anticipate is that 35% of the membership is from outside the U.S. Those members come from 28 countries, including Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, China, India, Indonesia, Sweden and the United Arab Emirates. Every week we find ourselves talking to people in other countries who are working on the similar problem of how to make print more relevant in the digital age, and a few who hope to be able to work with us in the future. There is no way we will ever be able to provide Printcasting to all of them, and certainly not in the early stages of the project. But it’s my hope that this online community will serve as an ongoing meeting place for people who are interested in digital-print projects.

A journalistic print-on-demand revolution is definitely brewing, and I believe this year we will see it explode in a big way through multiple projects. In fact, the term “Printcasting” is already being used in a generic way. This Spring I’ll be on a World Association of Newspapers panel in Barcelona, Spain titled “Printcasting”, and I will be joined by a mysterious European counterpart which I’ve never heard of. Other projects like The Printed Blog are emerging that, similar to Daily Me before, take a slightly different spins on RSS-to-PDF technology.

The other day someone even told me he’d heard of this new Printcasting thing and I should look into it, which made me smile since I personally coined that term a year ago and am about to launch the first site on the Printcasting.com domain. Rather than see these other efforts as competition, I think about how much more we could all do together. The Knight News Challenge’s open-source requirement sets the stage for that to happen.

So what are we hearing from our community members? Quite a bit. When people join Printcasting.com, they have the option of answering two questions that appear on their public profiles. One is, “Why are you interested in Printcasting,” and another is “What do you think are the biggest problems to solve with printed newspapers and magazines?” What follows are the answers I find particularly inspiring or thought-provoking. If you run across someone you’d like to talk to more on Printcasting.com, feel free to send that person a message or create your own profile. That’s part of the mission of the site.


Overheard on Printcasting.com …

  • Karen Magnuson, editor and Vice President of news at the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, is interested in Printcasting because of its niche focus (the Democrat and Chronicle has 11 different audience-focused web sites and print products in Rochester). She believes the biggest problems newspapers need to provide are providing the right content for the right audience at the right times, and creating a business model that produces the right kind of revenue to make a solid, consistent profit. On a similar note, the newspaper’s general manager of custom content, Jane Sutter, says “The future of the media industry depends on us being innovative in how we communicate information and how we help others to communicate information.”
  • Peter Vandevanter, VP of targeted products for MediaNews Group, says he’s interested in  “print self-actualization — the highest run on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs — for everyone.”  He says the biggest problems with newspapers today is “the popular perception (and reality) that newspapers and magazines are unrelated and unresponsive to the specialized information needs of the individual.” I should add that Peter is doing his own part to push print customization along, having held three international Individuated News symposiums so far, with a fourth planned for Washington, D.C. in June. I plan to attend the summer session. If you want to join us, sign up here.
  • Michael Riordan at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s Open Publishing Lab says, “We are doing related research and developing similar projects at the RIT OPL.“ After I saw this, I made a visit to RIT and learned more about what RIT is up to. Their Innovation News project (http://opl.cias.rit.edu/category/category/innovation-news) is fascinating, and has obvious overlap with Printcasting. RIT is also working on a project funded by HP Labs that would automatically turn content from any Web page into a printable publication. (If you want to see an example of a site that already does this, check out Frank Worsley’s Zinepal.com). 
  • Brian Parks, a contract carrier for The Bakersfield Californian, lives in nearby Wasco, CA. He wants to use Printcasting to mobilize local actors, stage technicians and theater goers around the local arts scene. “For me, public performances of many kinds are what really give the public at large a better sense of who we are. If only more people took an active interest,” Brian writes.
  • Patrick MacDonald, publisher of MacDonald Advertising Services, says, “I think we could use printcasting to reach our audience more efficiently. In general, newspapers have lost sight of the value of connecting people to events, goods and services, and, perhaps most importantly, each other. I believe the key is to stop selling products to advertisers that the newspaper produces and move to a ‘media house’ mentality and start selling audiences that it creates using collaborative links and more user-generated content.”
  • Kim Breshnahan, a community weekly newspaper producer based in Canada, is working on a business she called http://newsinaminute.net. It would be a small local publication franchise designed for waiting areas — restaurants, bars, hotels, doctors offices — and would include quick relevant local news. She wants businesses to have a simple way to update their own ads.
  • C.J. White from Shaker Heights, Ohio writes, “I’ve looked high and low for a solution to the problems that Printcasting seems to be solving … my eyes are tired and dry after working at the computer all day…the last thing I want to do is read my news on it.” He goes on to say, “Printcasting will address many inefficiencies. When I read a newspaper, I am interested in maybe 10% of what is printed. When I read a magazine, it’s at most 25%. I’m not alone. That’s a lot of wasted time, money, paper and advertising.”
  • Chris O’Brien of the San Jose Mercury News, and also a former Knight News Challenge winner, writes: “I think print will remain an essential part of news organizations for a long time. While much of the focus these days tends to be online, I think there is a tremendous amount of innovation to be done around print news.” He says the biggest problem to solve in newspapers is “creating a print version that fits the way people live their lives and consume media. I think this means that rather than having a single printed version, newspapers need many version that are as customized as possible. I think this project is a great step toward reaching that.”
  • Richard Stone, a consultant in Cameron Texas, says “The business model [of newspapers] is no longer self-supporting. Small, hyper-local newspapers may survive the next decade but I fear for suburban papers and larger daily publications.”
  • Catherine Kirkland, a Vice president at Universal Press Syndicate, saying she’s looking for new ways to sell and distribute their comics and columns. I personally like this idea because of the possibility of professional syndicates and “citizen” writers operating out of the same media ecosystem, all motivated by the prospect of ad revenue share. And I think it’s possible that Printcasting publishers would be willing to pay to have popular comics and columns like “Dear Abby” in their magazines.
  • Todd Smith, publisher of the Caledonian Record in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, says he has been trying to develop something similar to Printcasting there.  “We don’t do anything novel. We simply pay people to gather information that is readily available to anyone. Then we sell the information directly and the audience to whom we’ve sold. The problem in the future will be how we will pay people to gather the information. Plenty of stuff is easy to get but there is always other stuff that it takes a skilled (and determined) person to gather. One of the best ways to ensure those people will continue to exist is to pay them for their trade. The revenue shortfalls from print-to-web is what I’m concerned with, generally.”
  • Stephen DeVol, executive producer at the Dayton Catholic Worker Movement. He’s interested in Printcasting as a possible new model for creating church bulletins. The revenue generated would go back to the non-profit Catholic Worker Movement to help cover the cost of members’ housing. Most interesting of all, the CWM is already doing something like this manually for Catholic parishes using Microsoft Publisher templates and a network of stay-at-home moms who put networked copy machines in their spare bedrooms.
  • A woman in Israel who works for a weekly magazine targeted to an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Jerusalem says she’s looking for a solution that will create an automatic print edition from their Web site. Why bother, you may ask? She says their community “in general avoids the Internet because of easy access to controversial content. I have not seen such a solution yet and your seems perfect for the task.” My take on this is that feeding digital content into printed products could be an effective way to bridge the digital divide for certain communities that are never going to get online. You can lay all the broadband cables you want, but some people will never want to read content on a screen. Printcasting creates an automatic bridge between those worlds.

As all of these comments show, the real beauty of democratized publishing tools is that everyone can dream up new ways to use them. It will be exciting to see how much more they do when Printcasting is available to everyone, and I’ll watch other initiatives with interest.