Peter Vandevanter
Peter Vandevanter, vice president of targeted products for MediaNews Group, with a sampling of 239 niche publications the publisher prints.

DENVER - MediaNews Group is basing its next generation of targeted publications on the concept of "individuated" newspapers, fueled by the evolution of high-speed digital presses.

"I've followed digital presses long enough," said Peter Vandevanter, MNG's vice president of targeted products. "I knew it was going to happen. It's just a matter of when."

Drupa in June provided the backdrop for a number of digital press providers to show that their machines may finally be equipped to deliver results to an industry that's been ready for them for some time now (see Newspapers & Technology, July 2008).

"We know these presses drive down the cost of printing," Vandevanter said.

MNG is no stranger to niche publishing. In addition to its stable of daily newspapers, it currently offers 239 separate publications that include free magazines, newspaper weeklies and TMCs, from which the publisher posts annual revenues in excess of $90 million.

Now, Vandevanter said MNG is ready to draw on its expertise to become the "iPod of newspapers," offering targeted daily products to readers with all of the content they want and nothing they don't.

New concept of targeting readers

MNG is so keen on the idea of targeted newspapers that the publisher coined the term "individuated newspapers" to describe the concept and distinguish it as going beyond targeted products currently available.

The individuated newspaper was the topic of a meeting MNG sponsored at its Denver headquarters in June.

"If we print what our readers, not we, want, if we disregard our arrogance and old ideas, if we let our readers participate, we will succeed," MNG Chairman William Dean Singleton told attendees. "Imagine the value of the targeted newspaper if the newspaper we published knew what a particular reader wanted and could combine relevant stories and relevant advertising in each individuated newspaper."

Attendees to the event, the second of its kind hosted by MNG, came from a variety of areas within the newspaper industry, from software and community publishing suppliers to digital press vendors.

MNG has two more events planned dedicated to the topic, one Jan. 15-16, 2009, in Baltimore, and one June 24-26, 2009, in Washington, D.C.

Finding the right fit

MNG is keeping a close eye on the new generation of digital presses, searching the market to find the right fit for its own products even as it attempts to create the right blend of products to make the individuated newspaper a reality.

"Workflow software is a big part of this - the whole prepress aspect is big," Vandevanter said. "How are you collecting your data, is it RSS feeds or what? There are still so many pieces that have to come together that it's a mammoth."

Regardless of the technological foundation involved, the end product must mirror the publisher's key focus, Vandevanter said, citing DailyMe as a good interface for gauging reader interests.

The trail MNG is blazing is one other newspaper publishers will likely closely evaluate. During his 15 years producing niche pubs, Vandevanter has developed a good sense of the value of targeted advertising.

"That whole dynamic of 'print less, charge more' is what niche publications are all about," he said. "If you get down to a one-page product, what's the value of an ad on that page?"

Considering CPM

In terms of cost per thousand, he said the target for profitability lies somewhere between $100 and $400 CPM for products with circulations under 20,000.

"At $400 CPM you can get $4 for an ad on a page that cost you 5 cents to print," he said. "If you could get to a 1-to-1 newspaper, that's a very nice business model - we wouldn't even have to get there in the next two years to show value in these presses."

Vandevanter said he heard a lot of comments at the June conference that individuated magazines would likely become a reality before individuated newspapers.

"It doesn't matter what comes first," he said. "The key is that it's individualized."

There are two things that will derail the success of the individuated newspaper, according to Vandevanter. The first is failing to adequately test how these products will interface with the public. They have to be properly developed and tested, he said, in order to ensure their success.

"The public has to be as addicted to individualization of news as they are to individualization music," he said. "We want to be the iPod of newspapers."

The second threat is not placing enough value on advertising.

"If we don't establish the value of this advertising from the beginning, we run the risk of devaluing it."

Better than shoes?

Publishers must also recognize the value of the sociological aspect of an individuated newspaper, he said.

"Once this becomes personalized, you can sell it - this will be better than shoes."

Vandevanter said MNG has no imminent plans to buy a digital press, but that the publisher wants to offer some type of individuated product in 2009, whether or not it's initially produced on an MNG-owned press.