Hussman’s alternative — eliminating the daily print newspaper to save on publishing and delivery costs — is one that an increasing number of local papers have attempted in an era of rapidly declining advertising revenue. But instead of simply telling readers to switch to the paper’s website, the Democrat-Gazette gave every single subscriber an iPad — and then sent out a fleet of tutors to show them, one-on-one, how to use the devices to read a digital replica of the newspaper.
The labor-intensive logistics behind this unusual strategy underscore the challenge facing all news organizations adapting to the digital era — their dependence on a loyal if shrinking customer base that happens to be the demographic most in need of tech support.
Older readers, in other words.
“Many of these readers have been reading the newspaper for decades," said Alison Gerber, editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press, another Hussman-owned newspaper that began replicating the Arkansas strategy this fall, “and the whole idea is to allow them to continue to read the newspaper with the same feel."
Nationally, print readers tend to be older. A 2017 American Press Institute survey found that of newspaper subscribers over 64, 88 percent paid for a paper edition, compared with 47 percent of subscribers between 18 and 34.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press began distributing iPads to subscribers in September and offering in-personal tutorials in community rec centers, hotel conference rooms and the newsroom — in anticipation of the end of the daily print edition next year. (The Times Free Press will continue to print a Sunday issue and some special editions.) Every print subscriber will get to keep their iPad so long as they keep paying their $34-a-month subscription rate.
For subscribers in the habit of taking their news from a printed paper, being asked to switch to digital involves two big changes — not just picking up an electronic device but also navigating the dynamic, long-scrolling, frequently updating format of most news websites, Hussman noted. That’s why he’s promoting the format his newspapers are deploying for iPads, which closely resembles the traditional layout of a printed page but also includes digital features like videos and the ability to zoom in on small type.
“We’re asking them to make one change,” Hussman added. “To stay with the exact same format, but with digital.”
Rick Edmonds, media business analyst for the Poynter Institute — who called Hussman’s strategy intriguing — said people who like these “e-editions” prefer the “completeness” it provides, much like a finite newspaper.
“You read as much as you want and you’re done for the day,” he said. “For some people, they’re not plugged into their phones 24/7, and they don’t care much about getting the newsflash at 3:30 in the afternoon.”
Some Times Free Press readers who received their iPads and training were “apprehensive at first” but got up to speed even with little prior experience with the technology, Gerber said. “In some cases, [the tutors] actually have to show them how to turn on an iPad and hook it up to WiFi."
WEHCO, the newspapers’ parent company, will spend about $4.4 million on the iPads and another $1.7 million for training readers and marketing. It’s an expensive undertaking, particularly at a time where most regional and local news outfits are looking to cut costs.
So why not use that money to hire more journalists who can expand the newspaper’s digital presence and find new readers online?
Hussman, an iconoclastic and sometimes controversial figure in journalism — as a major donor to the University of North Carolina’s journalism school, he objected to the school hiring Pulitzer-winning New York Times writer Nikole Hannah-Jones due to her work on the 1619 Project — maintains that throwing more resources into that kind of digital journalism may be more effective for national newspapers like the New York Times or Washington Post than for smaller papers with a more limited base of potential subscribers.
“We’ve got this loyal customer base and we’ve proven they’ll pay us $34 dollars a month," he said of the Times Free Press, whose newsroom of 57 employees is relatively large for a city of its size. “Let’s invest in those subscribers and try to get them on board.” Meanwhile, he expects the digital presentation will appeal to younger readers, whom the paper will continue to pursue, as well.
Going digital-only raises questions of accessibility. The Times Free Press is offering wireless routers to readers who don’t already have the WiFi necessary to read the newspaper online. Otherwise, readers may have to go to public places such as the library to download their newspaper.
Last year the Tampa Bay Times scaled back the days that it prints the newspaper, directing readers to download the e-edition on off days. “It’s always on time, it’s never wet," said President Conan Gallaty, “and in fact we were able to add additional pages of content because we had much later deadlines,” allowing for more timely coverage of local sports teams when they played on the West Coast.
While the Tampa Bay paper isn’t giving away iPads, it has turned its attention to customer service and is actively reaching out to subscribers who haven’t activated their digital accounts.
In 2011, the Philadelphia Inquirer attempted to shift readers to customized tablets, but the program flopped with reports of poor customer service. And in 2014, The Washington Post also offered a six-month free subscription for Amazon Fire tablet customers. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns the Post).
A 2020 study by Medill Spiegel Research Center showed that since the iPad transition began, just 1 percent of Arkansas Democrat-Gazette subscribers cancel their subscriptions monthly. That’s better than the 3 percent industry average and the lowest rate researchers had seen in 20 years, according to Spiegel’s research director, Ed Malthouse. But that was after the Democrat-Gazette lost a sizable chunk of its subscribers when it first transitioned from print to digital; 75 percent continued subscribing.
It’s hard for Hussman to say how the paper fared financially since the change: It was on track for a profitable 2020 before the pandemic devastated advertising revenue. Sunday print delivery also proved more costly than expected. Still, the newspaper ended up in the black for the year.
“We are trying to find some way to make local community journalism work," he said, “Even if it doesn’t prove to be the most profitable return on investment of where we could put our money, it’s going to be an incredibly rewarding thing if we’re able to solve this problem, not just for ourselves, but maybe for the whole of society.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article reported that the Philadelphia Inquirer tried to shift readers to iPads, but they were actually Android tablets. This version has been corrected.