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Tracks to the Future
Kalmbach Publishing chugs between the tree-covered hills of digital media.

Thanks to the digital revolution, the boundary between print and what we might have once called television – but now more properly call video – has grown ever more porous.

 

I can’t help but wonder if a TV station’s print work posted on the web will someday qualify for the Pulitzer Prize (which four years ago finally admitted web-only work but still excludes broadcasters). Already an online news site has won a Peabody Award for its video work – shouldering aside the broadcasters for whom that trophy originally was created.

 

The latest crossover comes from Kalmbach Publishing, the Waukesha-based enthusiast-magazine company that produces Model Railroader and a slew of other publications for hobbyists. As MR the magazine that got Kalmbach started in 1934 – approaches its 80th birthday, it’s launching a new subscription-based video product.

 

 “The idea is that we are making a video magazine,” says David Popp, formerly managing editor for Model Railroader and now the person in charge of the new MR Video Plus, set to debut in the spring. “That’s been done before for television,” Popp continues – think 60 Minutes, 20/20 and the like – but what makes the difference here is both the Internet and the rise of tablets and smart phones.

 

“The key thing here is that we’re doing everything in HD video, and if you have everything from your phone all the way up through an Internet-enabled television, it should look fabulous,” he says.

 

MR Video Plus will be sold on a subscription basis (prices haven’t been set yet). While there will be some free content, it is to be its own, revenue-generating venture, not simply a supplement to the magazine. Subscribers might opt for just the print version, just the video product, or sign up for both at a discount.

 

Like just about every other operation that started out as ink on paper, Kalmbach and MR have long been navigating the brave new digital media world. MR, which operates out of Kalmbach’s headquarters on Crossroads Circle just off of Interstate 94 in Waukesha, has mainly used the web to draw new subscribers with teaser material while presenting other supplemental content available only to people who can log on with a subscription account number.

 

The magazine’s editors have become skilled at repackaging both old and new material into new digital-only collections around particular themes and selling them online. They’ve added social-media elements, enabling readers to comment on the website. And all the while they’ve continued to nurture the print market with spinoff books and special issues.

 

And with the advent of tablet and smartphone editions, the magazine has opted for a strategy that treats those as an add-on or freestanding subscription product instead of just wrapping them into the cost of a print subscription. Some younger MR readers opt for just the tablet version, Popp notes.

 

Video Plus has had decades of advance groundwork. The very first MR-produced movie dates back to 1937 – just three years after Al Kalmbach founded the magazine – a black-and-white, silent “how-to” flick.

 

In the 1980s and ‘90s, Kalmbach put out VHS tapes on topics such as how to build railroad scenery or use an airbrush to paint buildings and railroad cars and locomotives. “That did OK,” Popp says, but never really took off, probably because videotapes typically had a high price point. “They would produce a how-to video on airbrushing, and it would cost $50.”

 

Kalmbach has worked with the public television program Tracks Ahead produced at Milwaukee Public Television and produced a video for model railroad beginners hosted by actor and train buff Michael Gross of TV’s Family Ties. In 2004 the publisher partnered with TN Marketing, based in Wayzata, MN, for a DVD series called “Dream, Plan, Build” that proved very successful, Popp says.

 

And about five or six years ago the magazine started producing its website videos, with Popp doing much of the filming and using inexpensive digital cameras and iMovie software to edit them.

 

“Last year alone we served more than 1.2 million videos to people interested in model railroading,” says Popp. That number was eye-popping enough in a hobby that represents a fairly small niche market. (There are no solid estimates of how many model railroaders there really are; one calculation some years back put the figure at about a quarter-million.)

 

But feedback from the magazine’s audience members also made an impression. The solid performance of the DVD series combined with feedback from readers who loved the website videos but wanted more – in topics, in longer videos, and in more variety – suggested an opportunity.

 

Technology helped, too. “We couldn’t have done this five years ago and make this work,” says Popp. He credits Netflix streaming video with having created a new culture of movie consumption, along with the incredible growth of the tablet computer.

 

The website videos are occasionally open to all visitors, but most are behind a wall accessible only to the magazine’s subscribers. They supplement magazine articles and include short documentaries of events such as Train Fest, held each November in Milwaukee. A regular series featuring MR associate editor Cody Grivno mixes droll banter with editors and readers along with new product previews and various model-building tips.

 

“One of the things we’ve gotten in our surveys is that a lot of users watch not because they want to learn something. They’re interested in being entertained by people doing model railroading,” says Popp. That insight helped shape the mix of material planned for Video Plus.

 

MR Video Plus will include more of the how-to pieces that have been the magazine’s stock-in-trade from its first publication in 1934. But there will also be segments with an entertainment focus – like debates among magazine staffers over railroad and hobby esoterica (think “SportsCenter” for train geeks instead of NFL addicts) and the adventures of a seasoned train photographer, Kalmbach designer Drew Halverson.

 

Video Plus will be developed to create synergy with the print magazine. Discounts will be offered to subscribers who get both, but they’ll still be viewed as two separate products. And Popp says the magazine will continue to offer video on the web for people who just read MR and don’t sign up for Video Plus. Kalmbach hired a new assistant editor, Ben Lake,  with video experience to work with Popp, who joined MR  about a decade ago after teaching high school English, speech and drama.

 

So, will the print version of Model Railroader someday wither away in favor of a video-only distribution?

 

Probably not exactly.

 

“What I really think is going to happen is there will somebody be a new product, which will be a combination of print in digital form, combined with interactive video, combined with other components that people haven’t conceived yet,” says Popp. He figures the technology to make all that work is probably five years away; the sort of software and broadband infrastructure to support what he envisions isn’t yet in place.

 

But change is inevitable. The news has stopped being something we just get in the morning paper or on the half-hour or one-hour evening broadcast. “How often during the course of my work day do I just drop into Fox or CNN or one of the other sites, read a story, watch news clips – as a society we’re already doing that,” Popp says – as traditional news organizations know only too well.

 

“The difference here is the magazine is the next traditional stronghold. You either evolve or you perish at that point.”

 

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Speaking of Evolving … OnMilwaukee.com is seeking new investors, but founders Jeff Sherman and Andy Tarnoff tell BizTimes Milwaukee editor Steve Jagler all is well. Bruce Murphy at UrbanMilwaukee.com seems skeptical…

 

Back Again: Word was that sportswriter Tyler Dunne, part of the Journal Sentinel’s task force covering the Packers, was packing it in for USA Today. That didn’t last much longer than a minute. Although declining to discuss details, Dunne tells Pressroom Buzz: “Yep, I'm back at the Journal Sentinel and couldn't be happier. Absolutely love it here. The people, the co-workers, my boss, everything. In the end, that urge to return was overwhelming right away.” The Nation’s Newspaper, it seems, wasn’t the right fit…

 

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(photo from mrr.trains.com)





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