A project now under way at The Bakersfield Californian could give newspapers nationwide the ability to let readers easily create their own niche publications.

The Californian earlier this year won an $837,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to develop an interface, dubbed Printcasting, that allows readers to customize publications containing content from participating blogs and newspaper Web sites.

The upshot: user-generated publications that can be e-mailed as a PDF or printed at home or in the office, said Dan Pacheco, senior manager of digital products at The Californian.

"Maybe it's about music and you can get a bunch of content from (The Californian's Web site) Bakotopia, or maybe it's about a certain craft or neighborhood news," he said, explaining that Printcasting dovetails nicely with the paper's strategy to identify important audiences that could be served through niche products.

"What we know is that there are so many audiences that may not be as big as that for a newspaper, but there still will be a certain community that's interested in that topic or organization," he said.

Printcasting will also help newspapers capitalize on the continued appeal of print and allow them to reach local retailers wary of current print advertising models, Pacheco said.

"If you look at a small niche interests that may have 5,000 people dedicated to that community, there could be a half dozen or more businesses that would love to reach them," said Pacheco. "Those types of businesses are not advertising in our larger print products and certainly not in our main newspaper because it's too expensive and it would use their entire marketing budget in the span of a week."

Making it happen

Printcasting sprang from what The Californian learned by creating its own network of social networking sites (see related story on page 37.)

"Initially, what we talked about was how we can have people create their own social networks about very specific interests," said Pacheco. "And the term used for that was instabrand, but we haven't quite gotten there yet. I think that Printcasting is going to make that happen."

The newspaper is three months into its first leg of a two-year project that will make Printcasting available to anyone who wants to use it. It will be offered as an open source product, thus allowing newspapers to download the software and integrate it into their existing systems, Pacheco said.

The first phase of the project includes design and beta testing the Printcasting interface. The second phase, slated to start next March, includes testing the system at The Californian and the third phase encompasses testing Printcasting with five volunteer publications.

Printcasting also includes a self-service ad interface to enable advertisers to place ads on their own, Pacheco said.

"Printcasting is also a bridge strategy for serving local advertisers that may not be advertising anywhere right now, let alone in print," he said.

Once The Californian begins testing Printcasting next spring, Pacheco said he hopes to create an "American Idol" effect around the subsequent user-generated niche publications.

"We figure if we get enough people to create these things and we track which ones are the most popular, certain stars are going to emerge," he said. "We hope we'll see 100 come out over a three-month period where 10 of them are consistently good."

If that part of the plan pans out, The Californian will evaluate printing and distributing those magazines that spark the most popularity or best meet a specific demographic, Pacheco said.

Hyper customization

Pacheco said Printcasting meshes with the current demand among consumers for products and services that meet their specific interests.

"The print world hasn't been forgotten and when you see circulations go down it's not that people don't want to consume print," he said. "It's more of a statement about the one-size-fits-all audience strategy that newspapers have pursued for so many years."

The development of Printcasting comes as newspapers begin to explore more deeply ways to serve niche audiences.

"I've learned that there is this whole movement that I didn't know existed, but we are starting to learn about each other," said Pacheco. "Printcasting is part of that movement. Fortunately we're not the only innovators in that area, which makes it exciting."