Amid the din of naysayers who insist that newspapers are on the verge of death, a new company wants to start dozens of new ones — with a twist.
The Printed Blog, a Chicago start-up, plans to reprint blog posts on regular paper, surrounded by local ads, and distribute the publications free in big cities.
The first issues of this Internet-era penny-saver will appear in Chicago and San Francisco on Tuesday. They will start as weeklies, but Joshua Karp, the founder and publisher, hopes eventually to publish free neighborhood editions of The Printed Blog twice a day in many cities around the country.
“We are trying to be the first daily newspaper comprised entirely of blogs and other user-generated content,” he said. “There were so many techniques that I’ve seen working online that maybe I could apply to the print industry.”
As pay newspapers lose readers to the Internet, where they can read the same articles without charge, many free papers have held their own.
“The free newspaper business model is still very workable,” said David Cohen, a founder of Silicon Valley Community Newspapers, a group of free weeklies south of San Francisco that was sold to Knight Ridder in 2005 and is now owned by MediaNews. “There’s a huge readership that wants the local news, and local businesses tend to increase their advertising in bad times because they have to capture people’s attention.”
Still, Mr. Karp does not have to look far to see the difficulties of being successful in the newspaper business these days. The Tribune Company, which publishes The Chicago Tribune and its free daily, RedEye, filed for bankruptcy protection in December.
Mr. Karp is betting he can make his business work by combining the best of the print and Web models.
The Printed Blog will publish blog posts alongside other Weblike content, like user-submitted photographs and readers’ comments. The paper will be printed on three or four 11-by-17-inch sheets of white paper and laid out like a blog instead of in columns.
Users will eventually be able to log on to its site, theprintedblog.com, to choose which blogs they want in their edition, and editors will decide which posts make the paper. A city the size of Chicago could have 50 separate editions tailored to individual neighborhoods.
The Printed Blog also expects to duck many of the major costs that make traditional newspapers expensive to produce. The company will put commercial printers in the homes of its distributors, avoiding the circulation costs of papers with large, central printing presses. Advertisers will eventually be able to buy ads on the Web site, so The Printed Blog will not need to employ many sales people.
By publishing articles written by bloggers who are already diligently covering topics as varied as town politics and local fashion, Mr. Karp can slash one of the biggest expenses of a newspaper: reporters. So far, 300 bloggers have given The Printed Blog permission to publish their work for a share of the ad revenue, including small-audience bloggers in Chicago and nationally known blogs like Daily Kos.
The arrangement is mutually beneficial, said Lauren Dimet Waters, editor in chief of Second City Style, a Chicago blog that has agreed to be reprinted. “If they can make money off of our blog, I can’t imagine we wouldn’t, too, because of the exposure,” she said. “If it gets us exposure to 20 new people, then I’ll be happy.”
Mr. Karp will still need to pay for paper, ink and contractors to print and distribute the papers. Those costs add up, which is one reason the Internet spawned bloggers in the first place.
Advertising remains print’s one great advantage over Web publications: advertisers will pay much more for print ads than for online ones. Mr. Karp aims to sell 200 ads an issue. The Printed Blog will charge $5 to $10 for classifieds and $15 to $25 for business ads that reach 1,000 readers.
Mr. Karp, who previously founded a software company called Freerain Systems and sold it to ESM Solutions in 2007, has invested $15,000 in The Printed Blog. He receives free office space from the Illinois Technology Association, and his 10 staff members are volunteers who work on their personal laptops. He plans to raise venture capital to pay employee salaries and eventually expand.
Mr. Karp expects that each issue, to be distributed twice a day to 1,000 people, will eventually have enough ads to earn a profit of $750 to $1,500 a week. (In comparison, Mr. Cohen said that a typical weekly edition of one of the free Silicon Valley papers that reached about 20,000 people would cost about $10,000 to produce, with an operating profit margin of 11 percent to 15 percent.)
Advertisers will like The Printed Blog, Mr. Karp said, because it is hyper-local. “A clothing boutique or snow removal service can advertise to the 2,000 people who are most likely to buy the service, as opposed to many, many more,” he said.
About 15 advertisers have signed on for the first issue, including Flowerpetal.com, a florist in Chicago. “The great thing about it is you can change your pitch based on different neighborhoods,” said Brian Crummy, Flowerpetal.com’s founder.
Ads from local businesses are one reason that free dailies have been a rare bright spot in the newspaper industry. Unlike struggling car companies and department stores, which are mainstay advertisers of metropolitan dailies, small businesses have increased their ad spending during the recession, several publishers said.
“All growth in the newspaper industry for the last 20 years has been in free papers, and the fastest-growing segment of that for the last five years has been in free dailies,” said H. Harrison Cochran, publisher of The Aurora Sentinel in Colorado and past president of Suburban Newspapers of America.
Still, the economic crisis has not spared free papers. In November, free dailies in Kitsap County, Wash.; Eureka, Calif.; and Norfolk, Va., closed. In December, the three-year-old Bluffton Today in Bluffton, S.C., started charging for the paper because of falling advertising and rising costs of ink and newsprint. Its circulation has since shrunk to 6,500, from 15,000, Tim Anderson, the paper’s publisher, said.
Mr. Cohen, who was recently laid off by MediaNews, said The Printed Blog’s potential challenges would be magnified by its plan to publish dozens of niche papers. “It just sounds daunting,” he said. “To me, that’s why the Internet was invented.”