The hidden value in a printed newspaper

In the grand scheme of things, it’s the content of a news story that matters, not the medium.

You can be just as informed reading your work computer or on your smartphone or tablet as you are reading a printed paper.

In some ways, digital journalism offers you more. It allows reporters to be more transparent and tell more of a story because they can embed documents, video, and audio files and link back to previous stories or other websites. Online, readers can check the reporters’ work and have easy access to granular details that might not be worth putting in the actual text of a story.

Many newspapers in America already have scrapped their printed versions or at least stopped printing several days a week. More are moving that direction all the time.

But readers still see value in print.

This week, Poynter posted an interesting article about Walter Hussman, publisher of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, who is trying to make it easier for his die-hard print subscribers to convert to digital by loaning them iPads on which they can read a digital reproduction — sometimes called an e-edition — of the printed paper. Other papers have talked about or dabbled in handing out tablets with subscriptions, but none but Hussman have really made a go of it.

Hussman told Poynter (see the full story here: https://tinyurl.com/vz9tlld) the gamble is paying off, with a 78% subscriber retention rate as the Democrat-Gazette goes online-only region by region across the state.

The publisher thinks he’s finding success because many print readers are scared off by the vastly different look and navigation of a newspaper website compared to its print counterpart. His e-edition tries to bridge the gap by essentially giving readers the print paper in a digital format.

Hussman’s gamble is a prime example of both the ingenuity to which newspaper publishers are driven in their push to survive and publishers’ recognition of the growing import of readers to their bottom line.

But it’s also a fascinating story because Hussman’s unique shift to digital actually highlights some of the benefits of the printed product he feels forced to abandon.

Some benefits to print are obvious.

For one, so-called “deep fakes” — easily made but often startlingly realistic manipulated videos and photos — are metastasizing across the Web, increasing the chances that readers (or, quite frankly, some untrained journalists) can be duped. According to the Washington Post (full story: https://tinyurl.com/to3wfep), politicians are knowingly using such doctored images to rile their base.

That kind of thing happened from time to time when all news was printed or read over the air, but far less frequently.

Another benefit: You can’t hack the big hardcover editions of The News stacked up in our second-floor storage area, and you can read them with a flashlight if the power goes out. Digital archives are always one sustained power outage, electrical surge, or hack away from oblivion.

While it’s true you can print off a copy of an online news story to hang on the fridge or work into a scrapbook, it just doesn’t have the same aesthetic appeal.

But Hussman’s Arkansas adventure highlights a benefit I hadn’t thought of before: Print has an end.

I’ve long thought the internet’s limitless space was one of the ways it’s better than print, but, from a business standpoint, that might actually be one of the Web’s drawbacks.

The Poynter story on Hussman’s tablet tests points to Northwestern University research showing newspaper readers who consumed more stories were sometimes actually less likely to keep subscriptions, not more likely.

Researchers surmised that the bottomless well of stories on newspaper websites might rob readers of a sense of completion, turning them off to paying for a digital subscription when their paper’s press stops running.

Which makes sense.

There is a certain satisfaction in thumbing through a printed newspaper on a Sunday morning, turning that last page just as you finish a cup of coffee.

There is a certain mind-numbing frustration in looking up, haggard, realizing you’ve just spent two hours being pulled down rabbit hole after rabbit hole on a website.

On a few occasions, glitches at the third-party vendor that hosts The News’ e-edition have prevented readers from accessing those digital replicas of our printed pages.

Readers have been very upset, and I’ve sometimes wondered why that would be so, when all of our stories remained available at our website.

But maybe it has something to do with what they found at Northwestern University and Hussman might be seeing in Arkansas: It’s not just the look of a newspaper page, it’s the experience of reading until the last page is turned.

So maybe Hussman’s on to something more than he realizes.

Maybe the focus on the e-edition and not just a website is good not just for transitioning to an all-digital newspaper.

Maybe it’s a model for how newspaper websites ought to look.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.