It's always fun to look back on past decades' visions of the future -- especially when we're currently living out those actual periods. We didn't end up with the levitating cars, dreamed up in the 1950s; the imperialistic government of Orwell's 1984 (kind of); nor the spacecapades of Arthur C. Clarke's 2001.
Recently, a friend sent me a YouTube clip showing a 1981 local news segment that was a bit more prescient than the above examples. It was about a new invention called the electronic newspaper.
The San Francisco Chronicle and a few other papers were beginning to experiment with direct feeds to users' desktops, through a fixed-line phone connection. It took five hours to download and gave users the entire newspaper (sans comics).
"This is an experiment, we're trying to figure out what it's going to mean to us as editors and reporters and what it means to the home user," said David Cole of the S.F. Examiner. "We're not in it to make money, we're probably not going to lose a lot but we aren't going to make much either."
Ironic statements, given the current state of the newspaper industry. The Chronicle, for one, is currently seeing six digit losses per day and this week saw the death of the Seattle Post Intelligencer's print edition. More will come as the industry, backed up against a wall, is forced once again to innovate.
The most recent example is Chicago startup The Printed Blog, which takes the exact opposite approach of bringing a print newspaper online. As its name implies, it will produce daily print editions consisting of content taken from blogs.
The free paper, currently published in Chicago and San Francisco, contains 8 pages of glossy white paper laid out like a blog instead of newspaper columns (example here). Users vote online for the content they want to see.
Based on this voting, different editions will have articles and ads, targeted down to the neighborhood level, says founder Joshua Karp. A city like San Francisco could see 50 different versions of the daily paper.
"Right now if you want to advertise in the San Francisco Chronicle, you buy $1000 to $20,000 in advertising to reach 460,000 people," says Karp. "We're thinking of the world in 1000 reader increments."
Karp will charge $20 for ads on a CPM basis (cost per thousand). The 36-year old software developer contends he can afford to sell ads this cheap because inventory is boosted by the many different versions he's printing.
Karp also claims to offer advertisers knowledge of content that will be published per neighborhood (by virtue of reader voting). This brings contextual ad placement into the equation, akin to that we've seen deepen the pockets of online giants such as Google.
Lots of aspects to the model are reminiscent of the way things are done online. But the real advantage could come from garnering print ad rates. Though its ads are discounted for smaller circulation, they're still much higher than online CPMs.
"At the Chicago Sun Times, there is a 20x difference between an ad online and the same ad [in print]," says Karp. "Online, there is unlimited inventory so it puts greater pressure on CPMs. It dilutes the ad where it becomes almost worthless."
Each edition of The Printed Blog has 180 ad slots. At $20 each, and 100% ad coverage (in a perfect world) that's $3,600 for 1000 issues. Conversely, Karp's cost to produce an issue is $1.25, which equals $1,250 for the same 1000 issues (in CPM terms).
Low production costs comes from lots of places. The content is relatively cheap, with a small revenue share (and exposure) offered to bloggers. This eliminates newspapers' biggest expense: reporters. Meanwhile, ad sales costs are reduced by offering self-service advertising on its website.
"Right now, our ad sales force consists of two part time college students," says Karp, who has invested $15,000 of his own money and is currently raising venture capital to scale up the operation.
Meanwhile, circulation is streamlined by having each edition print from franchised locations throughout metro areas. This likewise trims down a traditional newspaper cost center: centralized printing and distribution.
So will this all work? The question comes down to whether or not advertisers will show up to self service their ad campaigns. And what about the content? Blogs, in their timeliness, tone and quality are quite fitting (indeed, a product) of their medium. How will they play on the printed page?
One thing's for certain; it's different, which is probably a good thing. Given the technology and media standards of today, no one in her right mind would build a newspaper business the way they are currently are modeled. These are operations built on the realities of a different time.
Like many things, it sounds good on paper (literally), but will have to be proven out in practice. If Karp is right, we'll view this in 25 years with the same obvious compliance with which we now view online news; Or it could just be another levitating car.
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