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Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Nearing Completion Of Digital Rollout

Walter Hussman
Michael Hibblen

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette is nearing the day when it will no longer deliver a daily printed paper. The newspaper has been transitioning its weekday service to an app-only format and plans to print only a Sunday edition of the paper by the beginning of next year.

Walter Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas-Democrat Gazette, said a sharp decline in revenue from advertising has caused many newspapers to cut staff, reduce content, or shut down entirely. Something needed to change, he said, if the Democrat-Gazette was to survive, so in early 2018, he began field-testing a new medium for delivering the news. In the city of Blytheville, which was home to about 200 subscribers at the time, the newspaper provided iPads for those people to read digital versions of the paper. In an interview with KUAR News, Hussman said his goal was to find a way to deliver quality reporting without cutting staff.

"We've just seen most newspapers in America shrink, having less news, having less staff. We didn't want to do that," said Hussman. "We tried to figure out is there any way we can keep the quality and continue to provide a complete comprehensive newspaper. This seemed to be the way we could do it because we can take enough cost out of it, but still keep the same number of editors and reporters and the same amount of news and probably even have more news in the paper by doing it this way."

Hussman, and his company WEHCO Media, invested $12 million in the iPad strategy. That includes the iPads as well as staff who train those who might be uncomfortable with technology on how to use the iPad to access the content. The digital version is nearly identical to the print version.

Kyle Massey, a reporter with Arkansas Business who has followed the rollout of the iPads since the beginning, said having news content on websites or blogs isn't unique. However, creating a replica version of the paper isn't being done by any other newspapers that Massey knows of.

"His [Hussman’s] thinking is that the readership wants exactly the product he's putting out. He just can't continue putting it out in the same business model, so he's wanting them to accept reading the same coverage on an iPad and he thinks that will work a lot better and be easier to monetize than a website," Massey said.

Skip Dahlgren a Little Rock resident who uses the new app on his own iPad, likes the format.

"I have found this latest version of the app is extremely useful because to me, the ability to see the whole page and then zoom in on the articles seems like a very good piece of design. I think they've done a wonderful job of making the paper truly readable."

According to Hussman, that's been the reaction of most of those willing to try the iPad version of the paper.

"Generally after several weeks, they say, 'Gosh this really is better. I really like this.' They like being able to enlarge the type and easily share articles and have articles read to them and go back and look at past issues, and every picture in the paper is in color, so it's amazing. Most people say, 'I really didn’t want to do this, but once I did it and got used to it, I really like it better.'"

Massey says the number of people converting to the digital version isn't where the paper needs it to be yet. According to Massey, Hussman projects at least 75 percent of the print subscribers will need to convert in order to make the new strategy viable without cutting staff. Part of that is due to changing the business model for revenue. In the past, the newspaper relied primarily on advertising to cover the costs of printing and delivery, but advertisers have moved their dollars to social media platforms.

"Hussman says that they will no longer rely on advertising to pay the freight. The readers, through their subscriptions, will make the revenue go round. That'll be the bulk of it and that's what they're relying on. We'll see if it works," Massey said.

The gamble seems to be a bet on the value of local journalism. According to an article in Arkansas Money & Politics, Hussman said, "If local reporting goes away, I worry about how the government will react when no one is asking them questions and holding them accountable. That's our only reason for existence."

Rob Moritz, a member of the journalism department at the University of Central Arkansas, said on AETN's program "Arkansas Week" that the gamble is bringing a lot of attention to the Arkansas paper.

"This digital version of the Democrat-Gazette, this is something that is being watched by the journalism industry across the country, across the world basically, because it's really a transformation of how loyal newspaper readers are reading the paper and I think it's kind of a dicey move by Walter Hussman. If it works, it really could change the way people read the paper."

This story has been modified to correct the name of the Arkansas Business reporter.