200 YEARS AFTER: Is paper out of date?

Big day Sunday for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

It will roll out the beginning of a long observation of the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Gazette. The Gazette name was added to the Arkansas Democrat flag after it closed at the end of the newspaper war in 1991, won by the Walter Hussman-led Democrat. The year will include daily reprints of historic front pages, an exhibit at the Historic Arkansas Museum and a gala dinner near the actual birthday in the fall

More interesting tomorrow is the likelihood that the D-G owner will talk about the future. This should include specifics on how the once-statewide newspaper will continue to cope with the changing newspaper business.

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The D-G gradually has been pulling back from daily delivery of a print edition of the newspaper. White County is the latest and nearest to home base in Little Rock to learn of the end of delivery of a daily print edition. The newspaper offers a digital subscription for about $400 a year that gives full access to the website and also a facsimile of a regular daily newspaper, readable on computer. Internet access is required, of course, a sometimes costly and undependable source in some parts of Arkansas.

The big question is whether there’s an all-digital future ahead for the newspaper. House ads in recent days have begun emphasizing the beauty of early delivery of the digital edition and the beauty of not having to step out in the rain or cold to pick up a paper.

Digital delivery is much cheaper of course. Paper, ink, press, trucks. These all add up to a lot of money. Print advertising had once been too lucrative to forego. But it’s disappearing, even to some extent the lucrative Sunday inserts and coupons.

Word among circulation crews, often the early detectors of major newspaper changes (this was the case in the days before the sale of the Gazette to the Democrat was announced in 1991). has for weeks said the D-G had purchased millions of dollars worth of tablet computers. These are provided in some areas as an incentive to people to continue as subscribers when print ends. There’s been talk of the newspaper going all-digital, something executives have declined so far to confirm.

Is an all-digital future in the offing for the D-G?. I expect some hints at that direction in Sunday’s paper.

To understand why all newspapers are in peril, you can take a look at this recent Wall Street Journal article. It chronicles the precipitous decline in both circulation and advertising, thanks to the Internet; the sharp decline in newspaper employment; the rise in news “deserts” around the county, and dire predictions for the industry.

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Hussman has maintained a stronger newspaper — in staff and pages — than many other larger publishers. This has engendered some reader loyalty, but the crash of advertising and changing reading habits among younger people have nonetheless taken a toll, seen in the pullback from print and dramatic staff reductions from the newspaper’s peak in the years after the Gazette folded.

The survival of newspapers and other news outlets is important. And not just for a ready source for local obits and high school ball scores. Once in a while, the watchdogs catch some bad actors. And since no news outlet is perfect (and editorial opinions do differ) we like to think multiple outlets are better than one.

So take a look at the D-G Sunday. I’m expecting some newspaper news among the historic reminiscing.

PS: I said “once-statewide newspaper.” I meant it not derogatorily but strictly literally. Is it a newspaper when it uses no paper?

UPDATE: Along with the expected historical items the Sunday paper included a profile and interview with owner Walter Hussman by Rachel O’Neal. There’s a good bit of news there for newspaper readers.

The newspaper is losing money and Hussman is making a big bet on iPads as a return to profitability. He says he needs to convert 70 percent of print subscribers to digital for his plan to succeed.

You don’t have to look far between the lines to find Hussman’s clues that print may be a thing of the past.

“The print model is not going to make it for newspapers. I don’t care what town you are in in America,” he says.

But he doesn’t anticipate other newspapers making the same investment.

“No one is going to copy what I am doing because no one has enough confidence in the future of the newspaper business to make that kind of investment.”

The weekday print edition could “conceivably” come to an end in central Arkansas, he says. He hopes to always continue printing a Sunday edition.

“It could happen,” he says. “The economics are a little better in central Arkansas than they are out in the state, but you know we tweak this thing and tweak this thing. … We are in unexplored territory. No one has ever done this. I don’t have the answer. We are going to do what works.”

There are problems large and small. The crossword for a small example. I wonder, too, if all-digital publication would still take the form of producing a digital copy of the conventional newsPAPER. It’s a far better package than a website, often hard to decipher and search.

The single biggest immediate question is how many people will pay a premium price for digital-only, a price far higher than, for example, charged for digital editions of the Washington Post and New York Times.

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And this is another big question in which lawmakers have already been making newspaper-damaging noises: Is a digital “paper” a newspaper in terms of meeting the law for the publication of legal notices, a still lucrative ad sector? If a digital-only Arkansas D-G can claim the ongoing ability to be a legitimate place for legal advertising, could not any other digital outlet?

These questions are all a  long way from Arkansas Post and William Woodruff’s little hand-operated press.

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