Web First, Print Later

Why some digital news startups are branching into print

When Knight Foundation executive John Bracken said that “Print is the new vinyl” this weekend, the point of his comparison seemed lost on many. In a post on the Knight Foundation blog, Bracken clarified his metaphor:

Here’s the core of the comparison: as more and more of the content we consume is based on bits, the ability to engage with atom-based media will, for some, gain value.

Future of media discussions tend to hinge on the go-digital-or-die narrative; so the idea that print media stands to gain in significance is a counterintuitive one. And yet, for some digital news startups around the country, a complementary print strategy has proved useful in three distinct ways:

First, by enhancing revenue. Print advertising can demand a much higher premium than online advertising. Let’s face it, people have their eyes trained to block out online advertising. Also, print ads can have a longer life, while an online ad lives only as long as the webpage remains stagnant. Second, by helping establish a brand, which enhances credibility. Having a print version can increase a publication’s level of recognition, and having readers familiar with your outlet makes it more likely that they’ll turn to you for news. Third, by increasing total readership. For all the talk of print being dead, there remains a large segment of the population that reads its news on paper, either for lack of an Internet connection, or out of preference, or both.

Take The Forum, a news startup covering four rural towns in New Hampshire. The Forum, profiled last month in CJR’s News Frontier Database, is primarily a web-based news site. But since it began in 2005, it has supplemented its daily online updates with three print editions a year, which are mailed to residents for free. Denise Greig, the chair of The Forum’s board of directors, says that while The Forum is a hyperlocal startup, the print edition has proven critical to building their web base. “Our online readership has grown steadily,” says Greig. “But after a print edition went out, we would see it bump up.”

The newspaper version had such an impact, Greig says, that The Forum will soon begin publishing its print editions six times a year, once every other month. To save money, The Forum will no longer directly mail the issues to residents, instead placing them in local businesses. The ad-supported paper will remain free-of-charge.

Greig says the paper version has been The Forum’s breadwinner, bringing in a stable amount of revenue, which allowed the website to continue to exist. Only recently did the website start pulling in enough ad dollars to sustain itself. “We’ve been the inversion in today’s world,” says Greig. “Our print edition helped support our online edition for the first few years.”

This was also the case for the Jersey City Independent, a hyperlocal site started in 2008. Co-founder Jon Whiten purchased Jersey City’s NEW Magazine a year later, increasing publication frequency from twice a year to quarterly and adding more editorial content while keeping the magazine’s extensive set of listings and advertisements from local businesses. (Full disclosure: Whiten is an occasional CJR fact-checker.)

While the website loses money, the magazine makes money, and Whiten says the revenue it earns has been invaluable. “Having the magazine has helped keep us stable and afloat,” says Whiten. “We’re growing, and we couldn’t have done it without having both.”

He cross-promotes in each outlet, and says he thinks having the website and the magazine has brought more readers to both publications: “I think the fact that we have both of these things projects the image of being a much more robust company. It helps legitimize the entire operation.” Plus, Whiten is a self-described print fan, and was “excited to have something more tangible and substantial that could be put in people’s hands.” (Read more about the Jersey City Independent here.)

Being able to physically place a print version in people’s hands was what convinced Craig Robinson to produce a print version of his website, The Iowa Republican. After over a year of publishing exclusively online, he published his first magazine version of the same title in June of 2010. “I viewed doing something in print as my brick and mortar,” he says. “It’s something that’s credible and professional.” He refers to the magazine as his “store front” and distributes it at political conventions, and also mails it to Iowa opinion leaders and people who participate or volunteer for the Republican Party. It is available for a subscription fee of $20, though Robinson says he is still messing around with pricing and frequency of publication.

He says the magazine has helped him build The Iowa Republican’s legitimacy, “I’m not offended when someone calls me a blogger,” says Robinson, “but I’m doing this as a for-profit business. Breaking into print helps me distance myself from that label.” It also extends his audience. Most of his website’s analytics show that his largest pockets of readership come out of metropolitan areas, but “once a magazine goes out you see some of those more rural areas come online and find the website,” he says.

Robinson also pointed out that some of the people he thinks would be most interested in his content don’t necessarily read their news online. “There’s a lot of older people that tend to be activists that participate in their county Republican committee,” says Robinson. “The magazine is catered toward them.”

Sometimes the online-only distribution model doesn’t work because the intended demographic lacks reliable Internet access. That’s been the case with Philadelphia Neighborhoods, a news outlet run by the journalism students at Temple University. The site covers the city’s underprivileged neighborhoods, which Christopher Harper, co-director of Temple’s multimedia reporting lab, says was part of the inspiration behind making a paper product. “The Internet availability is probably forty or fifty percent in some [of these neighborhoods], so we found a really good reception to our print edition,” says Harper.

It has also been great for the students; they hand it out to show sources who they are writing for, while at the same time spreading the knowledge about Philadelphia Neighborhoods as a site. “There was a lot of nice buzz,” says Harper. “By making the print edition an add-on to the online edition, we’re pretty much doing the reverse of what legacy media did.”

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Alysia Santo is a former assistant editor at CJR. Tags: , , , ,