October 31, 2008
Inputs from Dan Pacheco of Bakersfield, California, the creator of Printcasting

IFRA Flashlight Reports

Inputs from Dan Pacheco of Bakersfield, California, the creator of Printcasting

IFRA: When did the concept of ‘printcasting’ start and how has it developed?

Dan Pacheco:
The printcasting concept evolved directly from our experience launching locally focused social networking websites in Bakersfield, California. We started out thinking that consumers and businesses were gravitating away from print toward the Web, but we learned that they were really just looking for more relevant content regardless of the medium. That caused us to extend to the print medium what we’d learned about online user-generated content.

Our journey began in 2004 with The Northwest Voice, the first U.S. newspaper-run site to invite local people to write their own stories which were then printed and delivered in the neighbourhood. From the very first issue, we saw that there was a strong correlation between content that was contributed online and ‘terrestrial’ delivery of that content in the form of print. People saw the voice first and foremost as a brand that spoke to their interests and needs, and a vehicle that allowed them to directly share news and information of interest with their neighborhood. While they knew that they needed to use the Web site to get their stories published, the fact that those stories would be printed and delivered to their neighbours was very powerful to people. They’d see their content crossing the ‘fridge barrier’ as it were, meaning that their stories were clipped and posted on refrigerators all over town.

Local businesses also responded well to the printed product. We’d give them the opportunity to place ads in print and on the website, and they’d always be most interested in having their ads in the printed product. Thinking back, I suspect it’s because the advertisers we targeted were smaller than those that a newspaper typically goes after. We’d sell to neighbourhood nail salons, realtors that focus on only one neighbourhood and local services. Finally they could afford to place an ad in print that they could never afford in our daily newspaper, and they knew their ads would reach people in their target markets and that they wouldn’t have to pay for all of the other people who were outside of their targets. A more targeted product with a smaller press run met their need. They’d also see the ads they paid for on the street, possibly even in a rack of publications on the street where they did business.

Over time we launched more audience-focused sites, most of which also now have print products. The biggest shock for me was Bakotopia.com, a social networking site that targets young people who are into local music and alternative culture. I always assumed that this younger demographic would eschew print and prefer to get everything online.

While that site is the most social of our 11 brands, small advertisers – in this case bars, clubs and tattoo parlors – were always fickle about purchasing ads on the website (even those that had profiles on Bakotopia, which I always found surprising). Then Bakotopia came out with a printed magazine that included the best content contributed by users online. Those same advertisers instantly wanted to be in it. And even more surprising to me, young people picked up and read the magazine, then went online to write their own stories in the hope that they’d be chosen.

Even going back to the beginning of Bakotopia, I recall that our most effective promotion came from edgy flyers posted on street poles. I started think about how we could feed content that users contributed online into the flyers – such as the events bands began to post thanks to a successful flyer.

All of these elements lead us to conclude that our future success hinged on having many targeted brands in both print and online versions. But to make a sizable amount of revenue, we’d need to have much more than just eleven. We’d need hundreds. We knew we couldn’t do that all with staff, so we started to think about how the community could help.

IFRA: How does printcasting really work and how does it make it easy for people to have a print publication ready for distribution?

The key to printcasting is that we separate out each individual role in the publishing process. This allows you to start with the role you feel most comfortable with, and partner with people who assume other roles that they’re comfortable with. If you start out with one role, you can add another or even all of them. In this way, you can get involved just a little or control every aspect of your publication. There are five roles: contributors, publishers, readers, advertisers and distributors.

Contributors have regularly updated content that’s available in some sort of a feed – such as RSS or Atom (which most blogs produce automatically), or even iCal feeds for events. They’ll register their feeds and give other people the right to reprint their content. We think they’ll agree to do this because they will also have the potential to make a portion of any ad revenue that a publisher generates using their content.

Publishers aggregate content feeds from contributors, similar to the way an editor works with a group of writers, but in a more organic and distributed way. Once a publisher chooses feeds, all he has to do is choose a publication template that we provide and the publication will be automatically generated as a PDF on the back-end. We have a publication designer creating these right now, and hope to have at least 20 different templates by the time we launch in March 2009. From that point onward, new editions of that publication will be automatically generated and posted online, and e-mailed to people who subscribe. If a publisher wants to have more control over a publication, he can opt to be notified before every new edition goes out. We think the highest-quality publications will be edited in this way.

Readers will download and read publications using an online directory. They may read content online in PDF form, in a lite HTML form, or in printed form from home printers. We plan to track the demographics of readers for each publication to assist in targeting ads.

Advertisers will use an online tool that we create to post simple messages (for example, ‘2 for 1 Donuts and Bob’s Donut Shack’). Just as we do with the full publications, we’ll feed their text and images into pre-fab print ad templates. They’ll pay to target their ads by demographic, publication category or both. At some point we also hope to let them pay only for ads that appear in downloaded publications, but we won’t be able to do that in the first version. All of this ad revenue will be shared with everyone who contributed to the success of each publication — including the publisher and contributors whose content was used.

Finally distributors take publications that show promise – as measured by number of downloads – and print and locally distribute many more copies of a publication than the publishers themselves plan to. In exchange for bearing that cost, they will reserve the right to include additional pages of targeted ads that we sell.

When we launch in Bakersfield, the primary distributor will be The Bakersfield Californian and we will commit to distributing a certain number of publications each quarter that have the most audience interest and highest quality. In this way, we hope to start an American Idol-like effect. But instead of being a rock star with a recording contract, you can be the next local media mogul.

We’re also talking to other companies that may have an interest in providing distribution. An obvious target is local print shops, or remote print-on-demand services that can receive a PDF and then turn around and print, stamp, address and deliver. This sounds like science fiction to newspapers, but the reality is that there are a number of vendors who do this now and newspapers are sadly behind in this area. One that we’re keeping our eye on is HP Lab’s Magcloud (http://magcloud.com).

IFRA: What do you think about the viability of printcasting, as a business model for instance? Do you see it as being a part of the media future?

Well I obviously think it has huge potential, but of course I would because it’s my idea. I’m not the only one who thinks that. I’ve discussed the idea with Peter Vandevanter, a VP at MediaNews Group, and many others and they all think the idea has legs. Peter in particular believes niche magazines with press runs of 5,000 or less can command US$400 CPMs, which he bases on the cost to deliver a piece of direct mail at 44 cents. I suspect it’s lower than that, but still much higher than the current CPM for a typical daily newspaper.

One thing I don’t believe is that printcasting is the only approach for generating revenue in the future. U.S. newspapers are in a revenue crisis due to the U.S. economy, mortgage crisis and the fact that people prefer more personally relevant content than a newspaper can offer. Some publishers, and especially desperate sales staffs, tend to grasp for straws and look for one or two things that can reverse their fortunes. Just to be clear, printcasting is not going to save the industry, but it will be one of many new approaches that I believe and hope that a lot of newspapers will consider. The onus is on us to show that it can work in Bakersfield first.

IFRA: Can newspapers adopt the printcasting model in any way for use in the community?

Yes, and in several ways. As a recipient of the Knight Foundation’s News Challenge, we are required to open source all of the printcasting technology by the end of the two-year project (by May 2010). But we may make some components available before then. We’re building printcasting on the already open-source Drupal framework in the hopes that the large and growing Drupal community adopts it and keeps it going past the grant phase.

Also, part of our grant is to extend printcasting to five other markets with partners who want to sponsor it – which could mean newspapers, or any company that sees the value printcasting will have for local news and information. We will begin to look for partners next spring, and begin working with them in December of 2009. This is not just an empty promise, as a significant portion of our grant from the Knight Foundation is tied directly to this objective. Our partners do not need to be in the United States. We hope to have at least one international partner, if not more.

Finally, once printcasting code and documentation is open-sourced, we hope that a large, committed open source community is already in place to support it and keep it going. We hope that more than one newspaper gets involved in that way.

IFRA: How successful do you think the ‘print-from-the-masses’ idea will be?

Not only do I think it will be successful. I think it’s already happening, and we’re just making it easier and giving ourselves a role in democratized print publishing. It’s important to remember that the personal publishing movement that we all think of as ‘blogging’ today had its roots in print. It was really the advent of the personal computer and desktop publishing in the 1980s that started this trend, and it extended to the Internet in the 1990s. (Incidentally, I was involved in the early push for online personal publishing as a product manager for AOL’s Hometown home page publishing solution back in 1998).

If you don’t think regular old people are publishing magazines, go to your local coffee shops, laundromats, bars, car washes and salons. Look for a shelf or rack near the back and you’ll start to see little labors of love. This has been going on since desktop publishing hit the scene and it hit its peak in the early 1990s with an explosion of ’Zines’.

I suspect that a lot of Zine publishers moved into the blogosphere because tools like Blogger and Wordpress make it so much easier to publish. But here’s the thing. If you’re blogging for a local audience, having a blog doesn’t mean that you’re going to attract a truly local audience. To reach those people you need a presence where they live and work. Printed flyers and magazines are the natural way to do that. In fact, we think printcasting will be so popular with bloggers that we plan to give any contributing blogger a printcasting widget that they can put into their blog’s sidebar. That way anyone who visits their blog can read and print a magazine version of their content to read on the go. And of course the blogger stands to potentially gain revenue every time another publisher prints his or her work.