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Trading Paper for iPad In Northeast Arkansas

4 min read

So the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is handing out free iPads?

Not exactly. But it is trying an intresting approach to convert readers to digital subscriptions in the state’s northeast corner, an idea that might be a model for a paperless “newspaper” of the future.

The Democrat-Gazette is ending print delivery April 1 in Mississippi County, and it’s offering its 240 subscribers there $800 iPads in exchange for keeping their $36-a-month subscriptions.

The initial response has been encouraging, General Manager Lynn Hamilton says. Circulation staffers started handing out some 70 iPads last week at the Holiday Inn in Blytheville and helping readers set them up.

“They can get their iPads and get used to reading them before we stop their printed subscriptions,” Circulation Manager Larry Graham said in a phone interview. The iPad recipients will be asked to return them when they stop subscribing. “We’re trying to get people to read our product online, and this is a creative way to do that,” Graham said.

The paper is investing $200,000 in the project, which Publisher Walter Hussman Jr. described in a letter to readers last week. As one of the nation’s last statewide newspapers, the Democrat-Gazette recognizes “the importance of connecting everyone in Arkansas with news and information to hold government, business and all other institutions accountable,” he wrote. He also noted the “inescapable economic advantages of digital delivery.”

Blytheville, the county’s largest city, is 186 miles from the paper’s Little Rock printing plant, and Graham called it “incredibly difficult and expensive” to deliver papers there. “I had a subscriber tell me the other day, ‘I hate to see y’all pull out of Mississippi County,’ and I said we’re not pulling out; we’re just changing how you’re reading our paper.”

The economics aren’t far-fetched, according to another Arkansas publisher with great print experience. If a newspaper can cut distribution and personnel costs while printing fewer copies, “you can end up saving money” even factoring in iPad costs. Hamilton said numbers will be 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.”

The iPads are 64-gigabyte models with 12.9-inch screens. Loaded with the Democrat-Gazette app, they present a digital rendering of each day’s printed edition, something that industry surveys suggest connects better with subscribers than a strange-looking online format.

“The app is nice, really slick, and it allows you to blow up the pages and make the print bigger,” Graham said. “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.

In an email, Hussman made it clear that he’s experimenting. “We will know more in two months after we see how many people take up this offer and how many do after print delivery is discontinued.” He pointed out that all photographs in the digital replica, in contrast to the print edition, are in color. “It’s another advantage of digital delivery.”

Graham said that Hussman, chairman of Wehco Media Inc., had conceived the Mississippi County idea and has long been an innovator in the daily newspaper business, an industry battered for years as readers and advertisers have abandoned print for the internet. The Democrat-Gazette was an early leader in charging for digital access to news. Other papers have experimented with the iPad, and the French-language La Presse of Montreal used them successfully in its transition to digital-only publication.

“I’ve been here 37 years and Walter’s come up with some great ideas,” Graham said. “He just does some brilliant things.”

Other Good News
Hamilton also filled in details on some other news at the Democrat-Gazette: It announced 2 percent bonuses for full-time employees at a staff meeting about 10 days ago.

“We pay bonuses to full-time employees any quarter the newspaper shows a bottom-line improvement vs. the same quarter the previous year,” Hamilton said. “This past quarter was only the third time since the program began about five or six years ago that we’ve been able to pay the bonuses.”

He attributed the better bottom line to “cost-cutting done in response to advertising losses incurred throughout 2017.”

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