BUILDING DIGITAL LIBRARIES
The New Synergy Between Print and the Web
Terence K. Huwe
Director of Library and Information Resources
Institute for Research on Labor and Employment
University of California–Berkeley
The future of the publishing industry and the profession of journalism are hot topics these days. Those of us with intact long-term memory faculties will recall equally heated and ongoing debates about the future of libraries and our own profession, dating as far back as 1994, when the internet captured public imagination. Times have changed a bit since then; readers are evolving and so are the media they are favoring. We are supposed to be experts in understanding this trend, and the fact that we’re still here suggests that we’re doing a few things right. But the ferment in publishing is distinct and carries lessons for us. Innovators are creating new products and strategies that may be useful in our information universe. I’m not going to offer a treatise on publishing in these pages, but I am going to explore a new publishing tool that may be strategically useful, certainly for publishers but perhaps for libraries too.
Brave Not-So-New Web World
In essence, Web 2.0 innovations are well on their way to creating a new publishing cycle. This cycle already includes elements such as static websites paired with social networking domains; blogs and newspaper websites; social bookmarking; citizen journalism; value-added music subscription services; and microblogging with Twitter, to name just the most prominent outlets. But there is a new entrant into this publishing cycle, and it’s a dark horse: print publishing, or “printcasting” to be more exact. Despite the growth of all the digital outlets we now take for granted, print products can still be the best option for reaching specialized markets.
Printcasting is a concept, but it’s also the name of a new product (see www.printcasting.com) that made some waves in summer 2009 (see The New York Times, July 20, 2009, p. B7—you can reach it from the URL). What Printcasting offers is straightforward: provide all of the tools needed to produce a full-scale magazine, which can double as a “webzine.” The webzine can be read online just like a website or a blog, but it can also operate as a print-on-demand paper magazine. Printcasting makes it possible for advertisers to place ads and proposes a revenue split among advertisers, editorial staff, and authors. Users of the service can quickly repurpose existing web content for print. The new publishing vehicle is a high-quality journal that not only extends the reach of existing blogs and email news but may also create a new market with income potential. Embedded desktop publishing tools and templates reduce the labor associated with professional-level publishing. This enables the magazine producer to spend more time focusing on content and making it distinctive.
It’s too soon to say whether this specific outfit will have staying power, but the ideas that are driving it seem quite durable to me. Don Pacheco, senior manager of digital products for The Bakersfield Californian newspaper, was originally inspired to develop this tool by studying the music community. Surprise: It turned out that musicians and fans were favoring a print directory of events. This seems counterintuitive, yet the advertising sector also seemed to favor continuation of print outlets. What’s more, they were willing to pay far more for a print vehicle than they would for a web-only version.
The service carries benefits for enterprising persons who wish to reach micromarkets, such as scholarly communities or public library users … just about anybody, really. We know micromarkets very well; in such hot zones of discourse, the more knowledgeable a particular community is, the more focused your information outreach activity should be. So outreach: high-quality, highly targeted, online, and also in print. Unless I’m mistaken, these are the strategies and tools of the information profession.
The Knight Foundation (associated with the Knight Ridder media firm) has underwritten the costs of development, which suggests that the journalism profession also sees potential. But both the Knight Foundation and Printcasting are looking foremost at traditional publishing. I’m intrigued by an off-the-shelf product that may enhance what we already are doing. In fact, I see some compelling value points to this service.
Reaching New (and Old) Markets
A considerable amount of our energy has gone into market research, marketing services, and promoting the ideas we hold dear, both to society at large and to our user communities in particular. Long ago, this seemed like “new” work for us and was viewed by many as a burden. No one sees things in such a manner anymore because it’s abundantly clear that we need to “tell our story” as much as possible. What is more, all of the labor we have carried out has created numerous benefits. We are very well-informed on the state of publishing, scholarship, and user behavior. It’s easy to forget that other professionals who handle information may not possess such deep knowledge. In my opinion, much of the churn in publishing continues to be driven by fear of the unknown. In our case, a keen sense of our users’ needs has helped us navigate in the digital sphere.
The idea of using a new print tool to reach micromarkets might seem to some like a waste of time, given the plethora of digital tools that are broadcasting a clamor of news and entertainment around the clock. But the tools that are successful in reaching key markets are always the correct tools to use, even if they involve print. The concept of a completely customizable magazine that pinpoints a target community is powerful, particularly if that community favors reading printed material. That preference applies to a lot of senior faculty at the university where I work; I can well imagine neighborhood-level outreach documents published by public libraries that would build strong community links.
There are two marketing questions to ask in reviewing the viability of launching a print vehicle, using a tool that combines the advantages of print and web-based publishing. First, does the new publication reach underserved clientele in a manner that they would like; and second, is it possible to create a distinctive publication by recycling and repurposing existing content, thus saving time and energy. If these questions can be answered conclusively, much of your market analysis is in place. Implementing a print publication that is crafted with these questions in mind is no different than implementing a podcast within a corporate office—it is personal, it is focused, and it is utilizing a media type that you have determined is relevant to the audience.
Where in the World …
Those of us who live in highly networked parts of the world can lose track of the fact that connectivity, although it is improving, is not ubiquitous even today. The march of connectivity will continue. But in the meantime, communities and readers need services they can actually use right now. That can mean print outreach. The value of print is often proven by requests to reprint articles that serve a local purpose—something that happens quite a bit under the umbrella of Information Today, Inc.
Not too long ago, I wrote a column titled “Keep Those Web Skills Current” (see CIL, Vol. 24, No. 8, September 2004). A librarian in the Pacific island republic of Vanuatu asked to reprint the column in a local newsletter. The column was all about web publishing, yet the best way to get the message into circulation was to print it. The decision to reprint was local, no doubt answering to the nature of island life. But the example suggests that many of our readers may not follow the same blogs and streaming news sites we do; we need to pay close attention to reading preferences and develop the most effective services in response to that knowledge.
Printcasting as an outreach tool “professionalizes” the newsletter concept, and it works as a blog too. Performing the publication labor just once but utilizing it as needed for various constituencies would provide a significant boost to our outreach efforts. For that reason, Printcasting’s approach could be very useful for information professionals not only in the developing world but also in rural regions anywhere.
Content Life Span and the New Mix-and-Mash
We often think of using digital services to translate what we are already doing into a new domain—the virtual universe. This is a useful way of looking at the world, but it is no longer sufficiently comprehensive. In publishing and in the big-bucks world of online aggregators, there is a growing awareness that many if not all markets are undergoing a process of “atomization.” For political publications, this may mean aiming at political news junkies on the right or left wing, hardcore policy wonks, policymakers who are currently in office, legislative analysts—in short, a select group of readers. The information professions have also pioneered highly targeted kinds of outreach.
The new idea I see at work in the Printcasting example has more to do with an evolving understanding of how to mix or mash up existing content. We have moved beyond the strategy of transferring our library services to the digital world. We have become authors of databases, blogs, webliographies, online tutorials, electronic newsletters, podcasts, and social networking domains. A new and repurposed print strategy takes us full circle, but that does not mean a return to what we used to do. Instead, it means using print resources only as needed, in the proper micromarket.
It is interesting to find that new, value-added print formats can once again offer innovative approaches for outreach, utilizing timesaving software tools that make print publishing accessible for the profession. But in order to be successful with print in an innovative fashion, we must be familiar with three important aspects of the content we are slinging. First, how long is its life span; second, how many iterations can it appear in across the full arc of its life span; and third, how much revision will it require as it moves along the value chain. This kind of analysis of digital library services has become a crucial skill. Our challenge is to employ life span knowledge in the most effective way, utilizing all the tools at our disposal—whether in print or digital form. If we engage in that kind of strategy building, we may find that new tools such as Printcasting can indeed extend our outreach.