Customer Service And Technology Saving Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Publisher Says

Walter Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, speaks at the CALS Ron Robinson Theater in Little Rock on Oct. 10 about using iPads to deliver the news.
Credit Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

In the midst of a technological revolution, a simple business basic may be the salvation that rescues the 200-year old Arkansas Democrat-Gazette newspaper.

Publisher Walter Hussman and VP for audience development at WEHCO Media Eliza Gaines both contend that customer service has been crucial in leading subscribers from the print version of the statewide newspaper to its iPad-friendly digital version.

“I think it was absolutely customer service and having an individual really walk you through all of the features of the iPad and really helping people understand why this is valuable and what you can get out of it,” Gaines said of the county-by-county effort made over the past year to educate subscribers on the new technology. “The slide shows, the videos, the extra content, you know, being able to zoom in, all these extra features and then people really get in the habit of just waking up, picking up their iPad and reading it in bed… it’s a change of habit but it’s gone pretty well.”

“It’s that one-on-one customer service. This could be a great message to businesses around the country where customer service has gotten so bad,” Hussman added. When asked if the investment in customer service could be maintained from current high levels, he said, “We’ve got to make sure the economics work for getting new subscribers and providing that kind of customer service, so hopefully it will.”

More than a year ago, Hussman announced that daily printing of the statewide newspaper would systematically cease due to unsustainable high costs. Since then, a concerted effort to shift newspaper subscriptions to the daily digital version of the paper has been underway. A Sunday printed version will still exist in some areas of the state.

Hussman said that conversion rates from the print product to the iPad version are near his goal of 70% statewide and in some instances even higher.

“We’re probably at 70% or close to that number in most of the state, around 80% in some other areas, but here in Pulaski County we got 80% in Southwest Little Rock. Everywhere else, we’re getting over 90%, and we’ve had two areas – one is the Heights – where we’ve got 102%,” Hussman said.

Hussman said the success of the iPad conversion should allow him to keep his commitment to maintaining current newsroom staffing levels. He also said that he’s eying other markets where his WEHCO Media owns newspapers for possible conversions.

With subscriptions being crucial to conversions as the paper relies less on paid advertising, Gaines said national habits of younger potential consumers – which are accustomed to subscription-based products – could result in good timing for drawing in new readers.

“I think that does help that we’re kind of in the age of subscriptions with Hulu and Netflix and now Disney+,” she said. “You know, people are used to paying for content now and I think that’s really helpful. Another thing about the subscription is that they are all personalized. So they learn what you like, they recommend the content, and we’re trying to do the same thing with our content.”

You can watch the full interview with Hussman and Gaines in the video below.