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Customers filtered in and out of the hotel meeting room to come to grips with the future of their newspaper.

Gentle chatter rose from the square black tables -- some excited, some of it confused, much of it apprehensive as they looked at and handled the small device that will soon replace the scent of ink and crinkle of paper at their breakfast tables.

Certain phrases repeated:

"It's just like a big iPhone."

"This is Whole Hog Sports."

"Use two fingers -- like this -- to make the text bigger."

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette staff members met with customers in October at the Hilton Garden Inn in North Little Rock for sessions that lasted about 30 minutes apiece so the customers could learn how to read the paper, still in its traditional layout, but now delivered in the blue glow of an iPad screen.

"We know the future is digital," says Walter Hussman Jr., the newspaper's publisher and board chairman of parent company WEHCO Media Inc. WEHCO owns other newspapers, magazines and cable television companies across six states.

On Oct. 18, 1991, after an intense newspaper war with Gannett Co., Gannett closed the Arkansas Gazette and sold the assets and name to Little Rock Newspapers Inc., now Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Inc. Since then, the newspaper industry has been buffeted by technological change and shifts in reader habits.

The Democrat-Gazette hasn't been immune to the challenges.

Advertising revenue, once the primary fuel for a newspaper's financial engine, began dropping drastically with the rise of the internet. Subscription revenue grew in importance, even as the availability of supposedly free news spread online.

Hussman says he wanted to avoid strategies that other papers across the country have employed to combat revenue declines, such as mass layoffs, cutting back on distribution areas and eliminating news coverage.

"If you don't have a newspaper in your community, you're going to have a real problem," Hussman said, explaining why he didn't want to reduce the newspaper's geographic footprint.

But continued declines in revenue, and the costs of printing and distributing a newspaper to Arkansas' farthest reaches began to strain the company's determination to provide the kind of journalism its readers came to rely on statewide.

So, in February 2018, WEHCO Media, Inc. embarked on the first stages of Hussman's iPad initiative -- a program aimed at getting subscribers to read the paper, in its traditional layout, on Apple iPads.

'NOT PULLING UP'

The program began in Blytheville and was "a complete failure" at first, Hussman says.

In that first effort, subscribers were offered the tablets at a discounted rate. Only a handful of about 240 subscribers decided to stay on board.

Hussman chuckles when he tells the story. He can laugh now because as he adjusted the model -- by offering the iPad free of charge -- the number of customers who decided to continue to subscribe rose.

Nat Lea, president and chief executive officer of WEHCO Media, said the rate of subscribers per county who decided to take the iPad and keep their subscriptions hovers between 55% and 85%, depending on the county and its residents' internet access. The average across all of the counties in the program so far is about 70%.

Only about 75% of Arkansans have access to wired broadband, while just over 90% of Americans have similar access. In August, Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced a plan to extend broadband service to all rural communities by 2022.

Lea said WEHCO Media executives first started discussing ways to innovate in 2018 when, based on projections, they realized that the newspaper wasn't going to make a profit.

"We had to make a choice," he said. "We felt like it was important to be profitable."

The idea of reading the news on an iPad isn't new, said Penny Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at the University of North Carolina.

Nearly 4,000 other newspapers worldwide publish digital replicas available on iPads.

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette printed its first mentions of a new iPad application in 2010, and Hussman said that when he began exploring options for a more cost-efficient delivery system, he noticed that about 4,500 readers already read the e-edition.

Hussman reads the e-edition himself when he travels. The Wall Street Journal also has an e-edition that he likes to peruse whenever he gets the chance.

By the end of this year or early next year, the Democrat-Gazette will no longer print or deliver a daily newspaper in 63 of Arkansas' 75 counties. It will continue to deliver a print newspaper on Sundays.

There aren't any plans at the moment to shift the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, a separate publication that serves 12 counties, to the digital model. That's because subscription rates are still too low for the Northwest newspaper for the iPad model to work, Hussman said.

Shifting the 63 counties that get the print newspaper to digital editions has been slow, Hussman said. The company has done it by geographic region.

Many times over the past several months, he has given talks at Rotary Clubs, libraries and other civic group meetings to explain the iPad program.

"Media habits are often formed when we are young, so you have to kind of go through a re-education process," Abernathy said of reading the news on an iPad.

She reads her newspapers on a tablet and said it took nearly a year of taking the print editions and checking the e-editions before she changed her media habits.

Pulaski County -- the final county to switch to digital delivery -- is in the throes of the transition.

The company declined to provide specific information about when each county ended its print delivery.

Media experts say they aren't aware of any other newspapers that have given out iPads to readers.

"I think that it's a really clever way of dealing with the problem that some of the most loyal news consumers are often some of the oldest and least connected," said Nikki Usher, a professor with the College of Media at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Nationally, she said, newspaper subscriptions are down, in part because there are myriad online services that people can subscribe to.

"Do they think that supporting journalism is just as important as supporting something else?" Usher asked. "Being a good citizen includes paying for journalism even if you don't use all of it, just like paying property taxes is important even if you don't use the schools."

'COVER TO COVER'

Sherwood resident Donald Garrison Jr. attended the newspaper's event at the North Little Rock hotel and took home two iPads -- one for himself and another for his father, who also subscribes.

Garrison said it would be easier for him to spend more time with his dad, who is hard of hearing, explaining how to use the electronic tablet.

Hussman espouses a "killing them with customer service" philosophy in the transition. Customers can visit the newspaper office in downtown Little Rock or call in with questions, and the staff holds meetings during which customers can go in, get their iPads and ask questions.

"We give them the best customer service they probably ever experienced," Hussman said.

Even so, Hussman likes to say that people take the news of the changes from seven-day-a-week printed newspapers in stages. At first, they're upset.

The Garrisons said they went through such stages. They've subscribed to the paper for decades -- they were Gazette subscribers before the newspaper war ended -- and the younger Garrison got his subscription when he left his parents' house.

"We read it from cover to cover," Donald Garrison Sr. said.

He recalls reading in the newspaper that Blytheville was switching to the iPad, then Jonesboro was switching, and when he got notice that he'd need to switch "I thought it was the end of the world."

He gets up before his wife, Betty, and reads his favorite sections, he said. He likes knowing how the Travelers are doing, checking in on stock prices and laughing at the Pickles cartoons.

His wife's favorite is the Sunday High Profile section, and she likes Arkansas Life, a quarterly magazine owned by WEHCO Media.

The next step in the process, Hussman says, is acceptance. Loyal readers stay on board and forge ahead with the iPad, and once they use it a couple of times, they're hooked, he says.

When the younger Garrison picked up both iPads in the morning, Emily Smith, a Democrat-Gazette digital conversion specialist, walked him through the process of signing on and how each application works.

The iPads come loaded with six apps: Arkansas Online, Whole Hog Sports, ADG Website, ADG Archives, ADG Help and Arkansas Life.

When Donald Jr. got to his parents' house later that afternoon, he handed his dad the printed instructions he'd picked up.

"Oh, it's just like the newspaper," his dad said, scrolling through the app. "There's the editorial page! Very good!"

"I knew you'd like this more than anybody," his son said.

Not all reactions have been so positive. Readers have written scathing reviews of the digital conversion program online and in letters to the editor published in the newspaper.

One reader from Fordyce wrote in a letter to the editor published in February about growing up and watching her father read the newspaper, her walks to the end of the driveway to pick up the paper and using the sections for packing up items for storage or moving.

"Goodbye, old friend," she wrote. "Sadly, the new iPad day be upon us."

'TURNING AN AIRCRAFT CARRIER'

David Bailey, the newspaper's managing editor, said it wasn't until fairly recently that he had much of a hand in managing even the newspaper's website.

When he started out as managing editor, Bailey said one of his major goals was to make the Democrat-Gazette a "dominant regional newspaper," which resulted in coverage of events such as the war in Afghanistan, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the bombing in Oklahoma City.

When news first began migrating to the internet, many publications gave readers free access to their content online, a model Hussman said simply didn't work. That's why the Democrat-Gazette's content has been behind a paywall almost since the beginning, he said.

"I don't think any of us could have imagined what was going to happen as quickly as it was going to happen," Bailey said of the need for digital news delivery via the internet.

The newspaper created a team of reporters and editors to post stories to arkansasonline.com.

"Initially, I just tried to be an enabler for them," Bailey said.

For a long time, the team was entirely separate from the print news staff, with a separate budget.

Before the iPad conversion program began last year, the newspaper's leaders attended training and planning sessions with leaders from other newspapers to develop "digital-first" goals, Bailey said.

Through the training program, Bailey said, the newsroom has evolved into what are essentially two teams -- one that handles breaking news and another that works on more in-depth stories.

The lines between the teams often blur, he added.

Part of the news team's focus, Bailey said, is getting stories online faster and thinking about online elements, such as videos or interactive graphics as often as possible while providing high-quality journalism.

The training program "was effective at helping us do what at the time seemed as difficult as turning an aircraft carrier," Bailey said. "I think it's been a pretty successful project."

In the past year, the newsroom has increased its digital staff, hiring a multimedia editor and an audience engagement editor, he said.

Abernathy said she thinks the Democrat-Gazette's digital shift and iPad conversion will be successful in part because newspapers provide checks on local governments, vet candidates running for office and show connections between different communities.

"It was done in a very deliberate fashion," Abernathy said of the switch. "You're not pulling up, you're keeping your reporting on a statewide level."

Abernathy has researched the effects of shrinking news coverage around the country that has resulted in "news deserts," places where newspapers no longer exist or have been so weakened by staff cuts that they can't adequately provide the public service role of local-level journalism.

Bailey said he thinks that as long as the Democrat-Gazette continues to cover issues as it has for decades past, subscribers will stick around.

"People are interested if you give them really good news coverage," he said.

'WHAT'S COMING'

The Democrat-Gazette's first focus is keeping its loyal readership, and the traditional format of the paper appeals more strongly to older readers, Lea said.

Kwasi Boateng, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock communications professor who studies online delivery of news, said that while he thinks the traditional layout appeals to older people, the paper will need to evolve its method to garner younger readership.

"The target group, they like it, they love the legacy newspaper," Boateng said. "If that is working, then that's good.

"If you are doing this over the web and you're doing it on a tablet, what other options could you have brought to designing this to make it more appealing to the readers?"

Younger readers tend to prefer more interactive formats, he said.

Lea agreed. He said he doesn't think the iPad appeals to younger readers.

"Younger people like more of a feed," he said.

The newspaper's app has a "Latest News" feed under the digital replicas section.

Eliza Hussman Gaines, WEHCO's vice president of audience development and board secretary, said getting new subscribers, such as younger readers, is something she will focus on in coming months.

In September, Gaines organized a "News & Brews" event during which younger community members met with Democrat-Gazette staff members at Fassler Hall in downtown Little Rock to see a demonstration of the app and talk with reporters.

She said she thinks it's important for readers to meet reporters and editors to better understand what they do on a day-to-day basis.

"I'm not sure how much readers understand how much goes into putting out this product every day," Gaines said.

So, she said, more events like "News & Brews" are likely in the future.

She also hopes to create more emailed newsletters and identify other ways to personalize the customer experience.

"It has been a quick change," she said of the digital focus.

Donald Garrison Sr. said he's excited to see what the newspaper does next as technology continues to evolve.

"I want to be here in 200 years just to see what's coming," he said.

A Section on 11/17/2019

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