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Back to the future: MediaNews revives “print your own newspaper”

In an approach rather different from Microsoft’s vision of content delivery in the future, which I described yesterday, MediaNews Group has announced plans for I-News, a system that will print your own customized newspaper on your own printer:

The “individuated” stories selected by each reader are sent to a special printer being developed for MediaNews that each customer would have at home. The printer will format the stories and print them or send them to a computer or mobile phone for viewing later in the day.

Ads will be delivered as well. Where possible, the ads will be matched to each reader’s choice of stories. For example, a reader who selects high school sports stories might receive ads from retail sports stores, or skiers might receive ski-related ads.

Moreover, MediaNews suggests, once this notion takes hold, the company might only have to print and deliver actual newspapers three days a week:

Our greatest expense is printing and delivering a newspaper,” [MediaNews executive V.P. for sales and marketing Mark] Winkler said. “Eliminating it four days a week would be significant.

Haven’t we seen this before?  Yes indeed.  It was in 1939 that radio station W9XZY, owned by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, inaugurated a trial of the first daily newspaper edition transmitted by radio signals to giant facsimile printers located in homes.  (See illustration at top of this page.) The technology had been under development since 1934.  (And yes, fax technology was around that long ago; in fact, the first fax patent was issued in France in 1843.)

The Miller family in Pittsfield, Mass., owners of the Berkshire Eagle, in an ambitious plan filed away in 1941 just before Pearl Harbor, included this idea on their list of post-war strategies (along with offset printing, acquisition of neighboring newspapers, and television broadcasting).  In the 1950s they got as far as installing a giant fax machine that printed instantaneous headlines on a roll of paper that scrolled in a glassed-in display box outside the building.  But this idea never went much farther, in St. Louis, Pittsfield or anywhere else.  (Here’s a bit more about the post-war continuation of the faxed newspaper idea, and its demise.)

Fax editions were tried again in the 1980s as a way to deliver news to offices as fax machines proliferated; these trials included some customized editions.  The advent of the Web spiked that system, we thought for good.

Why on earth would MediaNews want to try this all over again?  Sure, there are some fresh bells and whistles in this version: the home printer could send the stories to a computer or mobile phone, according to Winkler.  But wait, I can already get stories on my computer or mobile phone.  And with an RSS feed or other tools, I can customize those stories to my interests.  Why do I need a MediaNews-supplied device in my house as intermediary?

It’s difficult to imagine a lot of enthusiasm greeting the i-News concept.  Among the grounds for skepticism:

  • The goal of reducing print frequency won’t be accomplished by shifting printing expense to consumers.  The price of reams of paper and printing cartridges will likely outstrip the consumer’s cost of a home delivered paper on newsprint.
  • The system adds inconvenience at the consumer end in the form of printer management.
  • It can already be done with FeedJournal, free, without a dedicated piece of equipment.  Why would readers want to pay for a narrower service that requires another appliance in their house?
  • This method eliminates or minimizes serendipity, which is one of the things print still does better than digital delivery; it’s something consumers like, for both news and advertising content.
  • Newspaper companies should be getting out of the hardware business, not into it, and especially should avoid investing in proprietary, dedicated devices like this.  (Although I’ve said that Hearst is smart to work on an e-reader, which is an entirely different animal.)

If MediaNews truly is interested in cutting print down to a few days a week, that’s a laudable idea.  As Winkler commented: “About 65 or 70 percent of a newspaper’s revenues come from ad sales on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, so we’ll keep printing on those days.”  And as I’ve been saying for months, most of the rest of the revenue would probably shift into those days if the rest were eliminated.

It doesn’t take a new gadget to make possible the inevitable move to cutting print to two or three days a week (or even to once a week) and being digital all the time; it’s already the right thing to do.  Let’s just get it over with.

But by the way, if I have to start printing my own newspaper at home, I want a nice walnut-veneer printer cabinet like that lady in the picture has.

[Updated and disclosure 3/09/08 -- as regular readers know, I worked for MediaNews Group for 13 years ending early in 2008.]

                                   
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Mark Coddington    July 18, 2014
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  • Glenn Fleishman

    I searched to find a bit more of this, and Google directed me way back to 1948, to a New Yorker archived article. The content is free after registration with the New Yorker. See February 28, 1948, starting on page 22.

  • Zachary M. Seward

    Here’s The New Yorker piece to which Glenn refers (hosted on Flickr):

  • http://www.timwindsor.com/ Tim Windsor

    Wow. This is the return of the Cue-Cat — a solution in search of a problem.

    Yes, RSS has this covered. But, then, they didn’t secure the trademark for Individuated News, so RSS is out of luck in this Jetsonsy modern world, I suppose.

    :-)

  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/ Martin Langeveld

    Wow, that New Yorker piece is fabulous.

    I love this part: “Stand by to crash.”

  • http://www.twitter.com/keatingmedia Stephen Keating

    I am working with MediaNews on this project. A few points:

    - The totality of this service, both in technology and content, is not yet public and will anyway evolve over time. So comparing it to something from 1939, while cute, is not as meaningful as imagining what it may be by 2019.

    - The operative concept in I-News is choice. The demand by individuals for choice in media drives innovation and new business models. File-sharing music sites innovated and iTunes made the market. Blockbuster built a video store franchise and NetFlix brought the video store home. Starting with choice and figuring out how best to deliver that is the constant question.

    - The critique that this “method eliminates or minimizes serendipity” overlooks the possibility that subscribers could choose a “serendipity” option.

  • http://www.metamorphblog.com Matt Mireles

    @Stephen I see your point, but I still don’t get the economic logic for the end user. Why in god’s name would a reader spend presumably hundreds (or even $10′s) of dollars to buy a piece of hardware to print out something they could already read online for free via an RSS reader?

    Furthermore, it seems like the people who’d be most interested in the end-product (paper news) are going to be the latest to the party in terms of adoption. My dad (b. 1929), for example, loves his newspaper, even as i preach to him the wonders of the iphone, laptop, etc. He might even pay $$ for customized paper news. However, I see him and others in his market segment (aka old people) are going to to be the ones who face the highest switching costs (from home delivery) and barriers to adoption, and will be the ones least able to setup and use such a system. Now, that doesn’t mean you might not get a few suckers to sign up and buy the thing, but, how, I ask, does this make my or anyone else’s life easier, more pain free, or more simple?

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  • mnmears

    Again, why are we reinventing the horse?

    If it’s true that printing and delivery of a newspaper is the biggest (or second biggest) cost for publishers, why aren’t they tapping into into home computers, which a majority of their subscribers likely own? Let them click on a story or headline and print it using their own desktop setup.

    No, let’s create a new machine, a Kindle-like text reader, something that people will likely have to buy or lease at some ridiculous cost.

    Why not simply utilize e-edition publication to its fullest, continue to improve it, and market it for all its technological advantages TODAY?

    This story almost made me want to check the calendar to see if that spring forward Daylight-Savings-time move propelled us to April 1.

  • http://www.twitter.com/keatingmedia Stephen Keating

    Matt,

    A quick response on the economics, via Kevin Reichard on http://www.MinnPost.com, where this conversation is also taking place: “Giving the reader a customized news feed and selling ads around it isn’t a bad idea for a newspaper to do.”

    Ads, of course, that the reader would like to see and perhaps wouldn’t see otherwise.

    There are a few answers to the question of who would want this, depending on the subscriber. Here’s one: Suppose that the newspaper your father loves stopped publishing on certain days of the week. But your father could get his favorite sections (or columnists, etc.) printed at home on those days. The question is whether the content, cost and ease of use is compelling to him. There are other options, such as the Kindle (if it carried that news content) which pose the same questions of content, cost and ease of use. One platform doesn’t fit all.

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  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/ Martin Langeveld

    Stephen Keating writes:
    “Suppose that the newspaper your father loves stopped publishing on certain days of the week. But your father could get his favorite sections (or columnists, etc.) printed at home on those days.”

    This is true, but the problem is that solutions enabling him to do that already exist. If the newspaper company decides not to print anything six days a week (which would be an excellent decision), it needs to just get all the way out of the printing business, and not sneak back into it by distributing single-purpose home newspaper printers. What the newspapers need to do, and they have very little time left to do this, is to resolve to become fully digital enterprises, and focus on that and nothing else. Let someone else try to sell special printers to some segment of the readers, just as there still is an aftermarket for Model T parts.

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  • http://www.twitter.com/keatingmedia Stephen Keating

    Martin,

    You seemed more optimistic about the industry’s ability to innovate a year ago…

    “What’s great about the industry is that everything is done in real time. Tomorrow’s paper, we haven’t even really designed yet. It’s just the 24/7 cycle of the news business. It’s very dynamic, there’s always something new.”

    Martin Langeveld, quoted in the Bennington Banner, April 3, 2008

    https://www.benningtonbanner.com/localnews/ci_8792945

  • http://newsafternewspapers.blogspot.com/ Martin Langeveld

    Stephen,
    Rather ironically, that link doesn’t work, since the story in question is behind a pay wall. I did say that, in the context of reflecting back on my thirty years in the business. It’s what made coming to something to look forward to every day. It was not said in the context of the industry’s capacity for innovation. But yes, I was more optimistic in the past than I am now, mainly because the industry has nearly zero financial resources available for innovation and change.

  • http://www.futureforecast.com Dan Pacheco

    Quick question for everone. When a news stories appears about you, a company or organization you are involved in, or something you want to save for later — and you find it first online — what’s the first thing you do? Be honest.

    I’ll tell you what I do. I PRINT IT OUT. And that’s quite amazing because I’m a “web guy” who hasn’t been working in print for 15 years.

    People are making decisions to print out individuated news all the time. HP, Xerox and others know this, and that’s why they’re making a bundle on ink cartridges. The only thing I can think of that would really hamper automatic home printing is how much those ink cartridges cost, but it seems like that could be addressed with advertising. Maybe you agree to see more ads for cheaper ink? I’d take that offer in a heartbeat.

    Full disclosure: I work on a product that is philosophically similar to I-News called Printcasting (see http://printcasting.com). We’re just now rolling it out in Bakersfield, California, and when we show it to people they — unlike almost everyone in this comment thread — get big eyes and start talking about all the ways they could use it. They’re normal people who don’t think about how things should be, but they do care about how technology can make their lives easier and better when they have less time, more choices and less money than ever before.

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  • http://www.wlbooks.com Michael Lieberman

    Thought this might be of interest–We are currently handling the archive of Austin Cooley, the inventor of the rayphoto device which dates back to the mid 1920′s. The issue then was that the technology was too costly and slow for mass adoption and then television turned up and put an end to its usefulness.

    I wrote a piece on the archive for Book Patrol
    http://www.bookpatrol.net/2009/03/fax-man-archive-of-austin-g-cooley.html

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