What can we learn from the death of the world's first printed blog?

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    Today, The Printed Blog newspaper announced it was shutting down, due to a lack of funds. In a letter to readers, Josh Karp said he 'suspected our relatively short run will have some long-term effect on the evolution of newsprint.'
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Updated Wed., July 8 at 6:30 p.m. and 7:15 p.m.

Well, absolutely everyone in the world with an Internet connection no one saw this coming: Despite "a significant personal investment" and the "additional support of six or seven credit cards," a new media venture called The Printed Blog is shuttering its presses, founder Josh Karp said today.

In January, a few days before the official launch of The Printed Blog, the New York Times profiled Karp, who explained that his newspaper would be "comprised entirely of blogs and other user-generated content." The idea was to take the things that make blogs good – the piquancy, the novelty – and apply it to the newspaper business.

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"There were so many techniques that I’ve seen working online," Karp told the Times, "that maybe I could apply to the print industry.” The Printed Blog was tested initially in Chicago and San Francisco with small print runs; in January, Karp said he hoped to expand to twice-daily editions in several cities around the country. The product was printed on 11×17-inch paper, and was also available as a download from The Printed Blog site.

According to Karp, the final numbers for The Printed Blog look like this: "16 issues, 80,000 print copies distributed, another 100,000 or so copies downloaded.... [and] zero regrets."

The good old days

When Karp first announced that he was creating a dead tree newspaper made out of digital ink blog posts, critics were incredulous. The model Karp was proposing, Hamilton Nolan wrote on Gawker, eliminated "all the cost efficiencies of publishing online in the first place." Furthermore, Nolan added, "should you be economically successful via an advertising model, you will instantly generate demands for payment from your unpaid blogger content providers." Damned if you do, in other words, and... damned if you do.

Furthermore, although Karp understood what made blogs fun to read, he overestimated how exciting it would be to read a 13-hour-old post on a White Sox game. If it's true that newspapers are dying because there aren't quick enough, wouldn't the same be true of The Printed Blog, even if the content originally started life as a snappily-written post?

Print is dead, right?

And then there was the timing: These are very, very bad days for the publishing business. Well-funded magazines such as Portfolio are folding; dozens of newspapers have shuttered or cut back on their print operations. In February, The Rocky Mountain News, the oldest newspaper in Colorado, ceased printing, and in March, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer shut its presses.

Remaining papers, such as the Boston Globe, have struggled to deal with declining print ad revenue – much of it lost to Craigslist, and other classified sites – while shifting to a web-centric marketing strategy. (In April, the Christian Science Monitor began publishing its daily edition online only.)

“For most newspapers in the United states, we would not buy them at any price,” Warren Buffet, the world's foremost businessman, said this year, when asked about the possibility of investing in newspapers. “They have the possibility of going to just unending losses.”

Well, maybe not

This was the landscape Karp faced. It was grim all around. Still, he persevered, telling Wired that contrary to popular opinion, print media was not dying. For "people around the world, who need to and want to consume information, whether it be in developing countries or emerging countries," he said, "newsprint is still going to be a main mechanism for information for years to come."

Karp told the Times today that he ultimately put "six figures" of his own cash into The Printed Blog.

“My biggest mistake was letting myself get carried away,” he said. “I kind of lost sight of the fundamentals of what I should be doing and said to myself, ‘Maybe I have a bigger thing here.’ I expanded too fast.”

Autopsy

So what can we take out of the shuttering of The Printed Blog?

"It won’t surprise me at all to find some of our ideas strategically implemented elsewhere in the months ahead," Karp wrote in a letter to readers. "I suspect our relatively short run will have some long-term effect on the evolution of newsprint." Karp did not specifically discuss that effect, and he did not immediately return a request for comment. [Karp's response at bottom of the post.]

But I think we can speculate as to the nature of the lessons learned.

First of all, don't muddle the medium. Blogs work because they are blogs, and putting a blog post on paper doesn't make it a better blog post. It makes it a newspaper article. This doesn't mean one is lesser than the other. As novelist Benjamin Kunkel has noted, many print folks write better copy on their blogs than they do under the "official" masthead of a major newspaper.

Still, Karp is right when he points to one major success of The Printed Blog: creating a community. Newspapers these days are dying to create "communities;" it's an industry buzzword. Many papers hire experts to manage their online communities, and to facilitate a back-and-forth between the reader and the newsroom. The Printed Blog did this effortlessly and it did it quickly – thousands of folks contributed to the newspaper, and thousands of folks read it.

It was – as the responses in the comments section of Karp's goodbye post attest – beloved by a vibrant community of readers. That's no small thing. And Karp was savvy in the way he went around building a readership: he wanted his audience to also be his contributors. People love to have their voice heard, and they love to hear what their peers think. Thus the appeal of any piece of Web 2.0 software.

And thus the (short-lived) spark of The Printed Blog.

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Update 1: Today, Horizons spoke with Nick Belardes, a prolific Twitterer, forthcoming author, and journalist based in California. Belardes says he'd be open to running a print magazine of online content. "I would need a good sales team," he says. "You need a community, you need to fill a reader void, and have advertising dollars."

How does he know it can be done? In Bakersfield, where Belardes lives, a magazine called Bakotopia has been a huge success – and its model is somewhat similar to that of The Printed Blog. Bakotopia is a magazine, but it's also a website, chock full of user-generated content; a good deal of the magazine's copy comes from the very popular Bakotopia blogs. Belardes himself often contributes.

As for The Printed Blog, Belardes opines: "Josh Karp said he expanded too far. I’m not sure I totally agree with that. Doesn’t that mean he could shrink instead of quit? Sounds like seeking advertising dollars weren’t his cup of tea. Simple as that."

Update 2:

Just got off the phone with Josh Karp, who was gracious enough to return Horizons' call. Karp spoke first about the difference between print and web content – he recalled that the first issue of The Printed Blog featured a somewhat racy photograph on the cover. Several potential readers refused to take the newspaper because of the image. "The sensibilities [of print and online] are very different," Karp said. "What works online may not immediately translate to print."

Karp also talked about the mail he's received over the past few months. He said he was "not only proud, but humbled by the response to The Printed Blog." He said he got emails from as far afield as Singapore, Iraq, and Iran, and fielded queries from thousands of potential contributors. Meanwhile, he said, the number of followers of The Printed Blog's Twitter account soared. "It really was quite amazing," he said.

So what was driving all that traffic to The Printed Blog? Karp said the interest was driven by a very specific demographic. "In large part it was journalists writing about a potential future for themselves."

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Were you a reader of The Printed Blog? Share your memories and thoughts in the comments section, or at @CSMHorizonsBlog.

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