June 23, 2020

E-replica editions, the online recreation of print publications, have been around for years. Even without heavy promotion, they have proven surprisingly popular with some readers. But they typically sit to the side of digital transformation strategies and the chorus of discussions and debates about the future of news.

While I would not say e-editions have blossomed into beautiful swans, they have recently become central to the audience approach of several newspapers, notably The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette and the Tampa Bay Times. And more of that is on the way.

An improved product

The platform has improved significantly in the last couple of years, I learned in a half-dozen interviews.

A big flaw of e-editions, content as aged as the print paper report, is correctable and has been fixed. While still following the print edition layout, certain stories, especially late sports results, can be updated before the e-edition is published in the early morning hours.

With print deadlines being pushed back earlier and earlier in many places as chains and some independents shift printing to distant plants, a later close is a distinct plus.

It is also relatively easy to offer bonus content — more games and comics, specialized sections aggregating anything from obituaries to COVID-19 coverage to local stock prices. McClatchy is pursuing this strategy in all 30 of its markets.

E-editions remain an ordeal to access and read on a smartphone, but tech improvements make navigation on a tablet or desktop relatively easy once you learn how.

At the same time, a great many local digital sites, while updated frequently, remain cluttered with intrusive ads, and home pages are dizzyingly disorganized. If most traffic comes from social media, why put a lot of expense and effort into an improved homepage? The preference of a number of readers for e-editions is not surprising.

From its early days, a subtle appeal of the e-replica was that you could read the whole thing, or as much as you want, and have a sense of completeness. Sure, it is not the same as a broadsheet in your hands with the first cup of coffee, but actual paper may not be all that important.

Even the top of the line digital sites, like The New York Times, can leave readers with a sense that they have missed something as display stories rotate in and out. The continuing scroll of new material may seem overwhelming.

A two-year experiment in Arkansas

Walter Hussman, the iconoclastic owner and publisher of the Democrat-Gazette, embarked more than two years ago on a plan to publish in print only on Sunday and channel seven-day readers to an e-replica, accessible on tablets his news organization provides.

It was a lengthy trial and error process, Hussman explained to me. Lots of both were made possible because the Democrat-Gazette is one of few papers that still circulates statewide. So he could experiment on small groups — with actual readers being asked to switch to the real version of the new publishing platform, not just a hypothetical.

Details matter a great deal, Hussman continued, and he changed the kind of tablet offered, the guidance to print readers in navigating the e-edition, pricing and other terms of the offer. Each step of the way he also insisted on a “pro forma” a model of expected revenue and expenses — in other words, a road map to profitability.

“You’re nowhere without a pro forma,”’ Hussman said. “We found that if we could get 70% conversion we would cover the costs with savings on delivery.” The conversion of 36,000 home delivery subscribers was closer to 80%.

The phase-in is not quite complete — extending to the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette — but Hussman, who never got on board for the first wave of digital transformation, said that he remains confident that the Democrat-Gazette is on the right track.

“The trouble is that we are talking about two transitions — from print to digital (platform) and from format to format.” Doing both at once is too much for many print readers, so better to do one at a time.

As Hussman looked at skinny daily papers in travels around the country, he concluded that “there is no future in that.” With more free sources of information, asking people “to pay a dollar a day” and support a right-sized newsroom and report is not a sustainable proposition.

Converting print subscribers

I also spoke with Pete Doucette, a former audience executive at The Boston Globe who now heads an audience practice at FTI Consulting.

“Let’s pretend that there is a 50-50 split (between the two formats),” Doucette said. “The e-edition is going to be the preference of most print readers … and they are likely to come back every day — so engagement is much higher.”

The late John Murray, who directed audience research at the Newspaper Association of America (now the News Media Alliance), schooled me some years ago that as many as half of print plus digital subscribers never read local news on local news websites. Generally, they don’t even bother to register for a news product they could get for free.

That is improving some, Doucette said, but part of a strategic approach right now is to encourage registration and develop a high-quality site as a way of getting ready for the future.

“It may be a bridge product,” he said, “but it is good to have it in place.”

Preparation can pivot to execution very quickly as it did at Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times on April 7 when print editions five days a week were suspended. Print loyalists were asked to shift over to the e-edition if they preferred that format to the paper’s website. The move was backed by a huge house ad and email advertising campaign explaining registration and navigation. Operators were standing by to answer questions for readers who became confused.

Conan Gallaty, the Times chief technology officer (and an alum of the Democrat-Gazette), told me so far so good.

“We have 80,000 to 90,000 engaged on a weekly basis,” he said, and almost 50,000 on a given day. That is a healthy percentage of a daily print subscriber base that’s a bit under 200,000.

“Some of those look at tampabay.com too, but (the e-replica) is the strong preference of print readers.”

Another aspect of the Times’s approach, Gallaty said “was to make clear why it was happening” at a time of financial pressure made much worse by canceled advertising contracts as the pandemic hit. The rationale was to keep the Times’ journalism as intact as possible by cutting five days of printing and delivery costs instead of more newsroom jobs.

Even with sports seasons on hold, Gallaty said, the later deadline option of the e-edition got a great demo of during the NFL draft “which ran well after midnight.”

Advertising is so far unproven

The jury is still out, both Doucette and Gallaty told me, on how advertisers will view e-editions and their growing audiences in comparison to print. Ad buyers tend to be cautious rather than daring and so far are reluctant to pay a comparable rate to print.

Print advertising has declined to a trickle on many weekdays in many places, so not a huge amount of revenue is in play. Since frequent local advertisers are sold packages that include print inserts and digital, the reach of a successful e-edition can be an enhancement to that buy.

Because e-editions have been more afterthought than essential until recently, there is little uniformity in how circulation is reported. The Alliance for Audited Media offers a variety of reporting options, spokeswoman Erin Boudreau told me, so a comparison of Publication A with Publication B may be meaningless.

Who reads them?

Typically e-edition readers have been a varied group. They include residents with a second home or who travel frequently for business and would like to see the print format when out of town. They might be long-time residents who moved and want to keep up on their old hometowns, or motivated sports fans who want to follow multiple teams.

The game changes once a paper makes the e-edition the only way to access a daily report in a traditional format, as at the Democrat-Gazette or the Tampa Bay Times. Those who were satisfied with print except for the occasional soggy paper suddenly have a strong incentive to register and give it a try.

No such incentive exists for younger smartphone and digital readers, who will stick with the website if they look to the local paper at all.

“We serve two audiences,” Gallaty said. “You have to invest in satisfying both.”

McClatchy papers have eliminated print on Saturdays at all 30 papers over the last six months. Even titles not yet going that far may want to follow Doucette’s advice and build out their e-editions as preparation should print reductions become necessary before long.

Phil Schroder, senior director of engagement and loyalty, told me that e-edition offerings have been loaded up with extras, all in print format — dozens of pages of sports, coronavirus coverage and a what-to-do-on-the-weekend extra.

He said use of the e-edition has been steadily rising this year; about a third access it in the course of a week. Metrics are showing that, as with print, some scan the headlines in the morning and come back for a more thorough reading after work.

Everyone seems to have their own metaphor for the role of the e-edition. Schroder said that he and McClatchy see it as “the on-ramp from analog to digital.”

In time, e-editions develop a settled role. Peter Bhatia, editor of Gannett’s Detroit Free Press, said a reduced print delivery schedule, in several different iterations, has been in place for more than a decade at both his paper and the MediaNews Group-owned Detroit News (which operate together in a Joint Operating Agreement).

“We have a number of readers who use it when they go south for the winter,” Bhatia said, “and some people who just like it.”

A case for their future

For one more take, I checked with Iris Chyi, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and a persistent critic of digital transformation. In a series of academic papers, she has argued that digital has been a bust financially for most newspapers and that they are wasting their time on building websites, which she has called “the ramen noodles of news.”

E-editions are better, Chyi told me from Taiwan where she is sheltering with family. She said they are easier to use and less expensive to produce. But she remains skeptical that they will be viewed as an equivalent product and yield a financial payoff.

Both Gallaty and Hussman told me that they have received many calls from other papers. Few have followed suit as of yet. My hunch is that dropping print days and pushing e-editions as an alternative will become widespread, more so the longer the pandemic ad recession persists.

Clearly, a Sunday-only print edition, which in most local dailies carries 50% of print advertising and is a profitable product, will be an intermediate step to digital-only.

That will leave the industry in the near term with three products for three audiences — and a huge challenge to make all three appealing at a time when resources are tighter than tight.

Rick Edmonds is Poynter’s media business analyst. He can be reached at redmonds@poynter.org.

This article was updated to clarify McClatchy’s move to eliminate Saturday print production. 

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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