Tracks to the Future

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…

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.”

 

*

 

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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Milwaukee Magazine Contributing Editor Erik Gunn has written for the magazine since 1995. He started covering the media in 2006, writing the award-winning column Pressroom and now its online successor, Pressroom Buzz. Check back regularly for the latest news and commentary of the workings of the news business in Milwaukee and Wisconsin.