Democrat-Gazette to test digital copies in 1 Arkansas county

Home delivery of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Mississippi County will end March 31, but subscribers there will be provided with an Apple iPad that will display a digital replica of the newspaper for the price of a daily and Sunday subscription, executives with the newspaper said Thursday.

The pilot project could be expanded into other counties while the newspaper looks for ways to cut costs and also move the newspaper further into the digital age.

In a three-page letter sent to Mississippi County subscribers, Publisher Walter Hussman Jr., said he realized that some readers prefer the printed edition of the newspaper.

"The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is one of the only -- if not the last -- statewide newspapers in America, and we realize the importance of connecting everyone in Arkansas with news and information to hold government, business and all other institutions accountable," Hussman wrote.

"We also realize that the future of newspapers and journalism is digital," he continued. "There are inescapable economic advantages to digital delivery that we must adopt so that we can remain a viable source of high quality news."

Hussman said the Mississippi County effort is a $200,000 investment in a "unique and unprecedented" program.

The 64GB iPads cost about $800 each and the 12.9-inch screens will provide a digital replica of each day's printed edition.

Blytheville is the largest city in the county and one of its two county seats but is 186 miles from the newspaper's printing plant in Little Rock. The Democrat-Gazette has about 250 Mississippi County subscribers, mostly in Blytheville, who take the paper seven days a week.

"It's incredibly difficult and expensive to get papers up there, but we are not leaving them," Larry Graham, vice president for circulation, said of Mississippi County readers after a staff meeting in the Democrat-Gazette's newsroom. "We're not pulling out. We're bringing you the paper in an exciting new form."

As of Thursday afternoon, about 30 percent of subscribers had agreed to try the iPad, Graham said. The newspaper will continue sending newspapers to Mississippi County for single-copy sales, he said.

Circulation staff will be in Blytheville next week to distribute the first batch of about 70 iPads and help subscribers set them up, Graham said.

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst and former newspaper editor in Philadelphia and Tampa, Fla., said similar efforts, although rare, have seen mixed results. Edmonds works for the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank in Tampa.

Providing an iPad -- and offering readers a digital replica of the daily newspaper, not just a website -- is an "interesting" idea, Edmonds said.

Edmonds said the digital replication of the daily newspaper is an important point.

"For a while, people thought, OK, there's a print version and a Web version," he said. "It has sort of developed that the replica version has become very popular with readers. There's the advantage of displaying the advertising, and readers can go through the digital version like they would with print, from the beginning to the end. With the Web, how do you know you're at the end? It's kind of free-floating."

A similar experiment with the Philadelphia Inquirer a few years ago didn't work out so well, in part because other changes at the newspaper distracted from the effort, Edmonds said.

In 2011, the French-language La Presse in Montreal gave tablets to certain subscribers with three-year contracts as the newspaper moved toward digital, and "that has been a success," Edmonds said. The newspaper's last press run was Dec. 30.

Edmonds said Hussman has a history of successfully taking paths not followed by other newspapers, most notably the decision about 15 years ago to charge for online content.

Business on 02/16/2018

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