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WASHINGTON - The future - as well as the current - direction of individualized news came under the microscope last month as proponents gathered to discuss the concept at the third annual Individuated News Conference.

The meeting, backed by MediaNews Group and held at The Washington Times, examined ventures already under way, but also took a close look at the potential challenges faced by media organizations as they evaluate the delivery of hyper-customized news and information.

"It's the media franchise of the future," said Peter Vandevanter, MNG's vice president of targeted products.Times Logo 2

Vandevanter highlighted the contrast between last year's conference, which was largely based on concepts, and this year's meeting, which boasted five individuated products in the marketplace.

Host of products

Among those products: MNG's I-News; The Washington Times' customized newsweekly; the Knight Foundation's Printcasting; PersonalNews in Switzerland and Time Inc.'s mine magazine.

"By the end of [last year's conference] we were debating whether the first individuated news products would be printed on a digital press, or on a home printer - and as I remember it, the group was divided about 50-50," Vandevanter said. "This year, we start with actual products to show and discuss - real market-tested products. And two of them are printed on toner-based digital presses, one on an inkjet press and one on a home printer. So we were all right last year."

There are no "wrong answers" when it comes to individuated newspapers, Vandevanter said, because products can inhabit any platform, including e-readers, PDAs and PCs.

"Individuated news is platform-agnostic, let's be clear about that," he said. "As long as the platform is digital."

New business model?

In a video presentation, MNG CEO William Dean Singleton further underscored the importance of exploiting concepts like individuated news, the term MNG coined to describe the creation of publications tailored to readers' interests.

"If we needed a new business model for newspapers last year, we need it even more this year," he said. "This conference continues to pursue a new business model. We owe it to ourselves and to the world to see if this new model will work.

"I've lived my life believing newspapers are the cornerstone of democracy and I believe the individuated newspaper will modernize that concept," he said.

"Imagine, as a reader, getting all the news packaged the way you want, about any subject you want, and in any depth you want, when you want.

"And then imagine advertisers being able to reach a motivated buyer when that reader is motivated to buy. In many ways, we've built our company around that dynamic," he said.

First strides

Each of the five individuated products took their first strides from concept to reality over the past year. The Times, for example, partnered with Océ, Printcasting, MNG and Augsburg, Germany-based workflow software developer Syntops to produce a personalized version of its national newsweekly.

Over a four-week period, 60 Times subscribers were able to customize their editions, going to a Syntops-anchored Web page that allowed them to choose among a menu of options, said Ted Agres, deputy managing editor.

Once the selections were made, the papers were printed from PDF files on an Océ Jetstream 2200 inkjet digital press at the vendor's facility in Boca Raton, Fla., and finished with inline Hunkeler postpress equipment.

The customized editions ranged in size from 20 to 60 pages, with 40 being standard, Agres said. Content included a selection of Times articles printed during the preceding week, a page of citizen journalism, international news and features, sports and reader-selected content from other sections of the paper.

Customization

Key to the project was the Syntops workflow that allowed The Times to generate full- and half-page modules containing reader-selected content.

"We first tried to figure out how deep we wanted to get into a page," said Times Cross-Media Design Director Gil Roschuni. "The more incremental you get, the more complex it gets. Ultimately we limited it to halves. We used background modules (from Syntops) with default rules and background information on the page - date and page numbers are put on the page by the system."

Agres said subscribers receiving the personalized editions were satisfied with the finished product, with the vast majority reporting that individualizing news was important. The Times hadn't examined personalizing advertising in the newsweekly, but Agres said almost half of the respondents said they'd be interested in such an approach.

"The thing that is most remarkable about the newsweekly is that it's actually unremarkable," Agres said. "It looks and feels like a regular publication - the difference is that it's the content that the user has requested."

I-News ready to roll

MNG's I-News also made some solid strides, said Vandevanter. The publisher is now offering I-News to 24 Denver Post subscribers in northwest Denver, in preparation for the service's formal launch in Los Angeles this summer.

As with The Times, I-News lets readers choose the information and news they want to receive. MNG is supplying content from its newspapers - in Denver from The Post and in Los Angeles the Daily News - combined with news from The Associated Press' AP Complete service. The AP service displays news in 197 categories from which subscribers can build their customized editions.

Once the information has been selected by readers, the finished package is sent to their homes via a smart, wireless desktop printer.

In addition to the home services, MNG also launched a trial with Marriott Hotels in April that delivered I-News to hotel guests staying at the Residence Inn in downtown Denver.

The product, produced on 8.5-by-11-inch paper on a desktop printer, was delivered to 11 guests by 6 a.m. for the duration of their stay. MNG also used AP Complete as the foundation from which guests could choose the news and information they wanted to receive.

MNG now plans to expand the hotel service, delivering I-News to 60 guests, Vandevanter said. "It's a fascinating new world," he said.

Printcasting branches out

MNG also said it would partner with Printcasting, the Knight Foundation-funded initiative that allows readers to use Web-based tools to easily create their own customized publications.

Dan Pacheco, Printcasting will use Printcasting's apps to fuel the creation of niche products in Los Angeles. MNG is the first publisher to sign up to use the software, which was developed - and subsequently launched - in conjunction with The Bakersfield Californian.

Coincident with the deal with MNG, Printcasting launched new city Web sites in MNG markets Denver, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and Boulder, Colo., to enable residents to create their own niche publications, said founder Dan Pacheco.

The initiative has also taken other steps to increase its versatility, he said, including the forthcoming development of a mobile version that will enable users to post their content via multiple channels.

Pacheco also outlined Printcasting's 60/30/10 revenue-sharing model as it begins to move from funded entity to a sustainable business.

Under terms of the model, the publisher would keep 60 percent of ad revenues it collects from companies marketing their products or services in niche publications. Content providers would receive 30 percent while Printcasting would collect the remainder.

At The Californian, which served as Printcasting's test bed, the paper has now hired a part-time evangelist to elicit support. Early adopters include the Kern County Library, political parties and the downtown business improvement group.

Segmented newspapering

Finally, Syntops said it would formally launch its PersonalNews individualized newspaper in Germany, beginning Oct. 1.

PersonalNews allows readers to create their own newspapers by selecting specific sections from newspapers around the world. The ensuing papers are then delivered to subscribers, either as PDFs, or as printed editions, said Gregor Dorsch, Syntops' CEO.

The German launch follows a trial Syntops conducted in Switzerland. Syntops partnered with Swiss Post, which took responsibility for printing and delivering the finished papers.

The German rollout will be PDF-only, initially, Dorsch said, until Syntops can find printers to produce the papers.

"We'll begin to strike deals with regional printers with digital presses once the service is available," Dorsch said.

PersonalNews will be priced at 25 Euros for 25 issues. Subscribers will be able to select from among 600 different newspaper sections, and from a wide variety of titles.

Customers can select a maximum of 10 sections per paper and participating papers will receive approximately 56 cents per section in revenue, Dorsch said.

Questions loom

But even as the notion of individualized publishing progresses, the conference also spotlighted some of the difficult issues facing the concept. Chief among them: monetizing. Participants were clearly intrigued with CPMs ranging into the triple-digit range, but panelists and some observers questioned the lack of verifiable audience readership data that would convince advertisers to take the plunge.

Panelists were also concerned about issues of privacy, and whether potential consumers might be scared off from participating in individuated news efforts by the prospect of having their preferences stored by servers managed by media organizations and other third parties.