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Publisher details push to digital WEHCO president lays out program offering iPads with digital subsc

Posted on December 11, 2018

The only statewide newspaper in Arkansas is looking more to digital as it moves forward.

Beginning Feb. 18, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette will stop physical delivery of its newspaper in southern Arkansas, only delivering a Sunday edition to subscribers. Instead, the publication will push digital subscriptions, with iPads being given to subscribers to access the digital replica of the newspaper.

During the local Rotary Club meeting Monday, Walter E. Hussman, president and CEO of WEHCO Media, Inc., discussed the plans of pushing digital subscriptions for the Democrat-Gazette in El Dorado and statewide. WEHCO Media, Inc., owns the Democrat-Gazette, News-Times, Camden News and Magnolia Banner-News, among others.

“We’re making some pretty significant changes in the newspaper and we had to, as it turns out,” Hussman said. “I feel like I at least owe it to you to come explain exactly what we’re doing. Not only what we’re doing, but why we’re doing it.”

Hussman, who is also publisher of WEHCO newspapers, discussed the history of newspapers, including the changes of advertising revenue in the 20th century. He said that in 1980, newspapers made up 31 percent of all advertising spending in the United States. Last year, newspapers took in less than 5 percent of all advertising revenues.

“It’s really changed dramatically,” Hussman said. “When you ask, ‘where has all of that advertising gone?’ It’s gone to digital.”

In the past, Hussman said, the business model of newspaper revenue was split into 80 percent advertising and 20 percent from subscriptions. But that no longer matches reality, he said.

“2006 was the first nonrecession year when total newspaper ad revenue in the United States actually declined,” Hussman said. “And actually now, they’ve declined every single year for 12 years.”

Advertising revenue for newspapers in 2006 totaled $35 billion a year, but by 2016 it had decreased to $12 billion.

While other newspapers in the United States cut staff and pages, while raising subscription prices, Hussman said it was important to him for the Democrat-Gazette to continue providing the same level of content while keeping employees.

“We’ve been able to do that by just letting our profits continue to decline year after year,” he said. “But now our profits this past year were down about 95 percent from what they were 10 years ago.”

To combat the declining revenue, Hussman said, they are going to start pushing digital subscriptions and ending the print delivery in some areas of the state.

He said the company first tested moving subscriptions to digitalonly with iPads in Blytheville, Arkansas, where initially only four subscribers decided to participate in a promotion with AT&T. After that initial push, where subscribers were offered a steep discount to purchase an iPad, failed, Hussman said they decided to give subscribers an iPad that they could keep as long as they kept their subscription with the Democrat-Gazette.

“Seventy percent of the people in Blytheville took us up on the offer and so that’s what we have today,” Hussman said.

Hussman discussed benefits to using an iPad rather than a physical copy of the paper, including having the ability to increase the size of text. Another advantage is subscribers will receive their newspaper inside of their homes, eliminating having to go outside on cold or rainy days to get the paper.

The iPads will come preloaded with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette app, as well as the El Dorado News-Times app.

Hussman said subscribers to the Democrat-Gazette in El Dorado have been contacted about the transition, adding that providing outstanding customer service is one of his top priorities.

The company will be announcing a day where subscribers can make appointments to receive their iPads with training. Hussman added that if someone is unable to make it that day, WEHCO will have someone come to their house to set their iPad up.

Hussman said when they initially started this program, it was going to be completely digital, seven days a week, but decided they could make a small profit by continuing to deliver Sunday’s edition in print. He added that the first place they are trying that is in El Dorado, Camden and Magnolia.

“So far it’s going pretty well,” he said. “So maybe that’s going to be our new model now.”

Rita Haldeman, El Dorado News-Times general manager, said having a chance to hear Hussman speak was an honor “for all of us here at the News-Times.”

“Although our industry continues to evolve, we are fortunate to have someone such as Mr. Hussman at the helm, who so embraces technology,” Haldeman said. “At the present time, there are no plans for digital-only distribution at the El Dorado News-Times.”

Kaitlyn Rigdon can be reached at 870-862-6611 or krigdon@ .