Circulation Boost?  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2009

Circulation Boost?   

Newspapers explore delivery via electronic reader.

By Will Skowronski
     


With the recent technological improvements to and growing popularity of devices like Amazon's Kindle, some newspapers are turning to easy-to-carry electronic readers as a way to attract and keep subscribers while cutting back on print and delivery costs.

The New York Times, the Boston Globe and the Washington Post, already available via the Kindle, will pilot editions on a newer version of the device this summer. The papers will offer them at a reduced cost to readers out of home-delivery range who agree to long-term subscriptions.

The Detroit Free Press and the Detroit News are making digital publishing an even bigger part of their immediate plans: They are replacing four days of newspaper home delivery with an electronic edition in hopes of staving off more newsroom cuts or a shutdown of the papers.

"It's apparent that most of the major newspapers are taking e-readers seriously as a potential new vehicle or platform for their content," says Roger Fidler, program director for digital publishing at the Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri. "It's really difficult to digitally replicate what ink on paper does...We're finally getting to a point where that's going to happen."

The growing popularity of the Kindle and Sony Reader, whose current incarnations offer six-inch displays that use "electronic paper" technology, is driving newspapers to take notice, Fidler says. Their screens appear like paper and are readable even in bright sunlight. The devices use battery energy only when the user turns the page, so, unlike your iPod, they can go for days without needing to be recharged.

This year, the firm Plastic Logic will begin testing wireless devices with 8.5- by-11-inch displays that can be used to read Microsoft Word documents or PDFs. Fortune magazine reported in February that Hearst is developing its own wireless, large-display e-reader that would allow publishers to include display advertising alongside their content.

Hearst declined to comment, except to say the company "is keenly interested in e-reading and expects that new devices and media platforms will be a big part of its future," Hearst spokesman Paul J. Lutheringer wrote in an e-mail.

In September, iRex Technologies became the first company to come out with a 10-inch electronic reader. It allows subscribers to access more than 800 newspapers, but it requires an Internet connection and a plug, unlike the Kindle, which receives information wirelessly.

Fidler thinks e-readers will really take off as a way to read newspapers once new devices that have at least 10-inch displays and more user-friendly features are readily available. New-generation devices will have plastic screens that should prove less fragile than the glass displays found on the current versions of the Kindle and Sony Reader.

"I think there's still value in the concept of a package that's conveniently delivered to you," Fidler says. "The Kindle has demonstrated that people are willing to pay a subscription fee to have it automatically downloaded to the device."

Rich Gordon, director of Digital Innovation at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism, says some underestimate the appeal of the printed paper and that millions still prefer it to the alternative. "As these screens get thinner, more portable, more flexible, more spillable and less fragile, they will get closer and closer to having the functionality of paper, and as they do it will become closer and closer to being a substitute for paper," he says. "In the meantime, you know, I guess I'm having a little trouble imagining what set of people wants to have another laptop to carry around." But once e-readers can come closer to mimicking the ink-on-paper experience, Gordon believes, newspapers should consider offering an e-reader to each print subscriber in order to save printing and distribution costs.

Amazon launched the Kindle in 2007 and updated it in February with the sleeker Kindle 2, which costs $359. In May, the company announced its plan to release a new Kindle with a larger, 9.7-inch display this summer. Kindle users can subscribe (via Amazon.com) to 37 local, national and international papers for fees ranging from $5.99 to $14.99 per month. They're delivered wirelessly each morning over Sprint's 3G data network, which is included with the purchase of a Kindle. (Amazon does not share its subscriber numbers, says Kinley Campbell, an Amazon public relations assistant.)

In Detroit, the hope is the electronic edition will allow the papers to cut costs while holding on to valuable subscribers. The papers "made the move to the comprehensive new publishing plan when it became clear that incremental measures were not going to be sufficient," says Paul Anger, editor and publisher of the Free Press. "We realized as a company that we needed to do something that was not incremental, that we needed to really look at taking a significant leap forward in view of the fact that digital delivery of news has to be the priority."

As of April 30, about 31,000 were visiting the e-edition of both papers on non-home delivery days, says Janet Hasson, senior vice president of audience development and strategy for the Detroit Media Partnership. That was more than expected, but she hopes the number eventually hits 100,000. On weekdays before the cutback on home delivery, the Free Press had a circulation of 298,243 and the News had 188,000, according to the Free Press.

Jon Wolman, editor and publisher of the Detroit News, says it was difficult to impose the changes on readers, but that they've been surprisingly receptive. So many people tried to access the free demos online that the servers overloaded.

The Free Press and News are expected to be available for subscription on the Kindle by early June. And the papers are also teaming up with Plastic Logic and plan to begin testing the device this summer in hopes that it will be on sale by the end of the year.

"They're adopting it because it has capabilities that they want or need that the traditional paper product doesn't offer," Gordon says. However, "before we assume that e-readers are the future of newspapers, we'll figure out what are the needs and problems that people are having that a newspaper solves and to what extent are those replicated or delivered in a better way by an e-reader."

Will Skowronski

,i> Skowronski (wskowronski@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.

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