As the global news media shifts from pulp to digital, cries of "Stop the press!" seem destined to fade into golden, halcyon twilight. But Newspaper Club, a three year-old London startup, offers a glimpse into a future where paper and presses might just have a place after all.
The online company -- now more of a cottage industry than a members-only club -- bills itself as a place to "help people make their own newspapers." Users can upload PDFs of their own designs or use a custom web publishing tool to design and create their own papers on the club's website. Print runs can range anywhere from one black and white 12-page paper (priced at £14) to five thousand colour papers (more cost effective, with copies running at 22 pence a piece).
One of the co-founders, Russell Davies, explaines that Newspaper Club began in 2008 when he and some colleagues -- all part of the British design partnership Really Interesting Group -- came together to make a Christmas present for friends; a one-off newspaper that aggregated interesting writing from the web, called "Things Our Friends Have Written on the Internet."
The gift was, Davies said, "Insanely popular," and led the group to wonder whether there might be a business in making custom papers.
Some near 600 years since Gutenberg invented the printing press, newspapers have, according to Davies, "Evolved into the right size and format. People know how to touch, use and deal with newspapers." The group's goal was make it supremely easy for people to print them -- specifically, by brokering with printing presses to arrange for very (very) small runs.
"Dealing with printers is not really easy -- especially now," Davies explained. "We wanted to have a minimum run of five newspapers. But if you turn up at the average printer and say that, they'll just laugh at you."
After doing initial research, the group determined that presses often sit idle during the day, before the traditional broadsheets are ready to go to press. All time during which they’re available to outside jobs, and can print at reasonable rates.
"When we started, we had to work really hard to get the printers to take us seriously," Davies recalled. "We had to pre-pay and demonstrate that we could deliver stuff in the format that they demanded."
If the printers were initially skeptical, Davies said that the Newspaper Club has since earned their trust.
"There's been a change of atmosphere," he said. "They realise that a lot of their traditional business is going away. I would be surprised if there's any new newspaper group in the UK that hasn't wondered out-loud when their last printed issue will be. They realise that they have to find other customers."
These days, Davies says his group represents "a reasonable amount of [the printing press'] business." By his estimate, in 2010 the Newspaper Group printed 500 different newspapers, ranging from editions of five to 10,000. At present, the club ships globally, although all the printing still occurs in the UK.
"If we had tried to start this in the US, we never would have made it," he explained, owing to the fact that the printing industry in the States is "much more vertically integrated" than in the UK -- where the printing and newspaper industries have been decoupled for a considerable amount of time.
With the emergence of a new generation of digital printers around the world, Davies foresees a day not far from now when the group will be printing cost effectively from the States, and possibly continental Europe.
But as successful as Newspaper Club has been, Davies is not comfortable with the notion that his group might rescue the printed word. "We're not saving newspapers," he said. "We're democratising newsprint, in some ways."
In large part the content printed is not news but personal material (custom wedding and graduation papers), local (sports club gazettes) and niche (limited-edition art and design journals).
To the pulp enthusiasts who see the group as nobly resuscitating a format for history's sake, Davies explained that, "We didn’t want to be a heritage business." Rather, Newspaper Group and its founders believe in the printed format, "because there are still some things it does better than anything else."
As an example, he recalled a customer who created a paper to protest the closure of a local school. "The organisers were saying that they liked the fact that you could wave a newspaper in front of peoples' faces," Davies said. With newspapers, there's a "physical meaning that an iPad doesn’t have."
At the moment Newspaper Club is working on developing tools to give users more options for layout as well as content-sharing options. Davies says the group is "having initial conversations with particular newspaper groups" to potentially publish content and share revenues -- an option that would allow customers to publish papers around a certain news theme, for example.
Davies says that the printing press may very well go the route of the denim loom or the vinyl press: both industries that saw a sharp decline as a result of changing habits, but ones that have since rebounded in niche markets -- albeit in smaller numbers.
"I think with the people who print newspapers, there will be less of them -- but the ones that remain will be really interesting businesses," he said. "And it's nice to be part of that."