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Democrat-Gazette Extends iPad Program, Will End Print Delivery in Jonesboro Area

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After ending home print delivery in several northeast Arkansas counties and supplying subscribers with $800 iPads to receive a digital newspaper replica, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is extending its innovative digital strategy to the region’s economic capital, the growing Jonesboro area.

A letter to print subscribers from Publisher Walter Hussman Jr. said the “declining economics of the newspaper business” require the paper to discontinue home print delivery “in Jonesboro and other areas of northeast Arkansas” after May 31.

The company, which first tested the iPad approach when it ended print delivery on April 1 in Mississippi County in extreme northeast Arkansas, ended home delivery Monday in Clay, Randolph, Lawrence and Greene counties. Subscribers who keep up their $36-a-month subscriptions receive a 12.9-inch, 64-gigabyte iPad loaded with a newspaper app allowing readers to see a digital replica of the printed paper.

Reader response has been strong so far, according to Lynn Hamilton, the paper’s general manager. Hamilton said 70 percent of the paper’s 240 subscribers had adopted iPad delivery in Mississippi County, and that 54 percent of subscribers in the other four counties “have been converted so far.”

Altogether, the northeast Arkansas initiative represents a possible $800,000 investment by Wehco Media Inc., the Little Rock company that owns the Democrat-Gazette and nine other daily papers, as well as nine weeklies. “The $800,000 encompasses all northeast Arkansas counties, including Craighead [where Jonesboro is one of two county seats], if all print subscribers were to convert to digital,” Hamilton told Arkansas Business.

“No decision has been made regarding other areas of the state,” he added. “We’re pleased with the results so far, but we’re taking this one step at a time, gauging the results as we go.”

As one of the nation’s last statewide newspapers, the Democrat-Gazette is determined to remain connected with all of Arkansas, Hussman wrote in his letter, dated April 25. “We would like to continue delivery of the print edition too, but in 2018 this is no longer economically viable in your area,” Hussman wrote, conceding that “the future of newspapers and journalism is digital.”

Jonesboro, northeast Arkansas’ largest city with a population of about 75,000, is about 130 miles from the Democrat-Gazette’s printing plant in Little Rock, and officials have described delivering the paper that far as difficult and expensive. The economics of replacing delivery trucks and paper routes with relatively expensive iPads are not as far fetched as they might seem, according to several Arkansas publishing executives. If a paper can cut distribution and personnel costs while cutting the newsprint costs of printing additional copies, “you can end up saving money” even factoring in iPad costs, one experienced publisher said.

In late February, after the Mississippi County experiment was announced, Hamilton said numbers were the key. “The iPad program will pay off for us if enough print subscribers accept the offer and adapt to reading the paper in the digital replica format,” he said. “By making a free iPad available, helping with installation and providing hands-on training, we’re hoping to eliminate most objections.”

Subscribers will be asked to return the iPads if they discontinue their subscriptions. Circulation Manager Larry Graham said the idea was the brainchild of Hussman himself, and the publisher and Wehco chairman eagerly promoted the advantages of the new system in his letter to readers.

“This is the largest iPad, and it illustrates the newspaper in even a better way,” he wrote, emphasizing that the digital replica “looks exactly like the print edition, including all the headlines, photos, and advertisements all on the same pages and in the same place as the print edition.” He noted that photos are almost all in color, and that readers will receive the daily’s final edition with later news than could be included in printed copies that were trucked in. “We publish more pages in our replica edition,” he added. “Subscribers enjoy more business information including stock quotes, sports scores, and other content that we are working to expand.”

The Democrat-Gazette has been an innovator in the daily newspaper business, an industry battered for years as readers and advertisers have abandoned print for the internet. It was an early leader in charging for digital access to news, and while it is not the first paper to experiment with iPad news delivery, it is seemingly the first to focus on far-flung regions of its circulation area.

Wehco has a strong presence the opposite corner of north Arkansas, where it publishes the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It also has south Arkansas papers in Texarkana, El Dorado, Magnolia and Camden, as well as The Sentinel-Record in Hot Springs.

In a February interview, Graham called the iPad application “nice, really slick, and it allows you to blow up the pages and make the print bigger. You can press a button and it’ll read the stories to you.” The app worked well in a quick review at Arkansas Business. A tap on a headline brings up individual stories, and the audio option reads the news surprisingly smoothly in Siri’s voice.

Hussman said the initiative was an attempt to “continue to deliver news, information, opinions and a great newspaper … for many years to come.”

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