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June 14, 2011, 10 a.m.

Fargo Kindle City: One small paper’s experiment with publishing ebooks

When you are a 50,000-circulation daily newspaper in Fargo, North Dakota, it would be easy to leave trying new things to the big guys.

But that’s not the attitude of The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead, which just rolled out its first feature-length series as a Kindle Edition. The series, Vistas and Visions: Microsoft in Fargo, is a seven-part narrative on the beginnings and growth of the computer giant’s presence on the prairie. The series which ran over several days in print and online was made available in full for 99 cents through Amazon.

We’ve written our fair share about news organizations testing the waters of Kindle Singles and ebooks, but what makes the Forum stand out is its relative size and willingness to roll the dice. They have no iPhone or Android apps, and no presence on tablets. The sum of their digital footprint is their website, which gets around 50,000-80,000 unique visits daily.

“No one knows if it will be the future of anything, but we thought we should try something on that platform to see how it went, and, frankly, to get our feet wet and see if this is something people will buy,” Matt Von Pinnon, editor of the Forum, told me.

So far the results aren’t anything to structure a business model around; the Forum had no specific goal in mind. There have been around 76 downloads of the story for Kindle Editions since it went up two weeks ago. After factoring in Amazon’s cut, that amounts to about $27 for The Forum. But, hey — it’s $27 they didn’t have before.

“It’s a very, very small revenue stream, but nonetheless it an opportunity to be in that world and show that we’re there,” Von Pinnon said.

Von Pinnon said the only guiding idea behind the Kindle Edition was experimentation. Beyond anecdotes, they have no particular evidence that their readers are big Kindle users, and at a recent check just around 2 percent of online readers were looking at their site on an iPad. (That’s around double the web average.)

The safe bet would be for the Forum to maintain focus on print and their website, but Von Pinnon said it was important to experiement. “There are so many different avenues for journalism, different ways of presenting it, different ways to roll it out,” he said.

And the Microsoft story was a perfect fit. Reporter Marino Eccher and photographer Dave Samson worked on the project for about a month. The story is a look inside Microsoft’s foothold in Fargo, which began with a small company called Great Plains Software. In the early 1990s the companies partnered, with Microsoft later acquiring Great Plains Software in 2001. Today the company has a rolling campus with around 1,000 employees, some who have been recruited from area colleges like Minnesota State Moorhead and North Dakota State.

The idea for the series came from the fact that there was no definitive history on Microsoft in Fargo, and Eccher and Samson were allowed wide-ranging access inside the company. Since the story had a narrative, serialized structure to it, turning it into a Kindle edition was relatively easy. Online producer Ryan Babb spent around 7-8 hours producing the series for the Kindle. In total, putting together the Kindle product didn’t eat up much resources outside of what they already would have used for the series, save Babb’s time formatting it for the Kindle (something Von Pinnon said could be streamlined with a new plug-in to the publishing system they use).

“I didn’t think it was overly taxing for the staff to do it,” Von Pinnon said. “We learned some things.”

For the investment and time, Von Pinnon says they’d certainly do it again, hopefully with the idea of growing an audience with each new Kindle edition they produce.

Von Pinnon said they’ll keep an eye towards what could make a good Kindle product in future story planning, but also look back, to their archives, on what events and stories could be repackaged for new mediums.

“We hear from people about putting the paper on the Kindle,” he said. “I think what papers are trying to figure out is, is there an audience there? If you build it, will they come? But we won’t know if they’ll come until we build it.”

POSTED     June 14, 2011, 10 a.m.
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