A funny thing happens when you win a contest like the Knight News Challenge. Suddenly, what was once just a wacky idea that you threw into a web form becomes a long list of things you have to do. And those of you who are lucky enough to be filling out a full Knight News Challenge proposal this week for the second phase of the competition should take note: If you win, you have to do all of it.

If you haven’t seen the list of features we originally promised to build into Printcasting, let’s just say it was pretty darned long. So it’s with great satisfaction that I can say that, 18 months after our Knight-funded Printcasting project started, we have finally completed all of the features we promised.

But that doesn’t mean we’re finished. If anything, we’ve made our list even longer thanks to constant feedback from people who call us up to say, “Printcasting would perfectly fit my needs if you could just add this one extra thing…”

Introducing Printcasting 1.5

To those of you who have been asking for more control over publishing and design — pay attention. This week we’ll take a huge step forward by rolling out Printcasting 1.5, which is all about giving more control to publishers. You can see a quick preview of some of the 1.5 features here:

The elevator pitch for those who don’t want to watch the video is that Printcasting 1.5 has much more professional-looking templates, more options for how text and pictures can be arranged on a page, more control over fonts, and some really cool design features for header images.

We call this a “dot-five” release because it’s really an incremental step toward the even more ambitious Printcasting 2.0, which will be a complete rewrite in Drupal 6 that will be more usable by the open source community. (We will also open source the Drupal 5 version once we’re satisfied with where it’s at).

We say that this release is all about publishers because, until relatively recently, we were still working on an extremely complicated self-serve advertising system. It was important to get the advertising system to work (and it was an important part of our Knight News Challenge proposal); but, to be frank, we haven’t seen a lot of interest from the small businesses it was designed for.

One reason is the economy. Many of those businesses either cut their marketing budgets or flat out went out of business in 2009. You could say that it was the second worst time in American history to launch an advertising tool, with the first worst being the Great Depression. I continue to be a believer in the idea of “democratizing” print ad publishing, but it will take more time to get the features just right, and attract interest from time and cash-starved businesses.

Surprise! Businesses Need Democratized Publishing, Too

While we haven’t seen interest from businesses in buying ads, we have seen a ton of interest from companies and organizations that want to use Printcasting, or utilize the democratized workflow that’s behind it. The common thread with these large organizations is something we never anticipated but which now makes sense: They need help spreading the work of publishing within their own walls, democratizing from the inside out.

These organizations run the gamut from publishers (including but not limited to newspapers) to membership organizations, and their needs seem to increase as the economy forces companies to do more with less. We hope to be able to work with some of these organizations as partners.

We also continue to get attention from the tech community. MIT included us in a list of Research to Watch, and O’Reilly will include us in a session at their Tools of Change in Publishing conference, along with our friends from RITs Open Publishing Lab and Spot.us.

Looking Ahead

So where does this leave us for June 1, the first day after our Knight News Challenge grant runs out? When we’re not designing and coding, we’re also thinking quite a bit about how to keep Printcasting.com going. We also want to make it do even more, and have been working on ideas. I naturally can’t get into details about those plans, but they’re exciting and I hope to be able to talk more publicly about them after they firm up.

In the meantime, we’ll maintain laser-like focus on the user experience. Among our top priorities are:

  • Launch Printcasting 2.0 on Drupal 6. My challenge to the development team is to complete this by the end of February.
  • Roll out more partnerships We’ve inked one to-be announced partnership with a Latin American newspaper, with a second in the wings, and are deep in discussions with a well-known membership organization. We also hope to work with some smaller non-profit news organizations that have reached out to us. Think your company and organization could make for a good Printcasting partner? Fill out this form and we’ll get in touch with you. (On a side note, we’ve had many discussions with U.S. newspapers, but sadly most have stalled as most of those papers deal with collapsing business models).
  • More promotion in Bakersfield through our sponsor / partner The Bakersfield Californian. After Printcasting 1.5 launches, the Californian plans to seriously ramp up marketing of the service in both print and online. We’ve already seen some increases in usage from some test promos.
  • Experiment with e-book formats starting with ePub, which is what Apple is using for the recently announced iPad. I was really excited to see Apple adopt this open standard, rather than promote a new proprietary format. Those of you who think Printcasting is all about paper may be surprised to hear that we’re thinking about e-books, but the truth is that Printcasting has never been just about print. It’s a digital technology platform that creates content that is designed to be read in your hand. The more visual e-readers become, the more important layout and design will be. We hope to make our service an integral part of the e-book and e-publishing ecosystem.

So that’s what we’re up to. Please give Printcasting 1.5 a try this week (we’ll post an update on our Twitter feed when it’s ready), and get ready for more fun stuff in the future.

UPDATE on 2/4/2010: Printcasting 1.5 went live on Feb. 3. Read more about how to get started on the official Printcasting blog.